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Trefor Moss

Something in the Chinese Air: Pollution, But Hints of Transparency

Talking endlessly about the weather is supposed to be a British quirk, but a growing obsession with air quality has made the weather an equally popular talking point for Chinese netizens.

We think that gate's beautiful, but we can't tell

Several Chinese provinces were choked in thick smog last week, with the city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, experiencing some of the grimmest conditions. Users of Weibo, a Twitter-like platform in China, were quick to express their concern about the health implications of the unclean air. This week, as the haze finally lifted, they were just as quick to celebrate the return of blue skies.

The Chinese government accepts that pollution is a serious problem. However, online debate about atmospheric pollution raises some important questions about how much haze ordinary people can tolerate, while also providing insights into people’s impressions of what is being done–or not being done–to improve the country’s environment.

Mistrust, thick as smoke

Clearly, when people casually refer to “PM2.5″–an obscure measurement of particulate pollution– in every day conversation and in their Weibo posts, there is a widespread issue. The fact that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing measures PM2.5 levels and publishes them on Twitter has not gone unnoticed, despite the fact that the Chinese government blocks Twitter (Weibo users simply re-post the latest U.S. readings). 

Beijing’s sensitivity in instructing the U.S. Embassy to stop reporting Beijing’s PM2.5 levels has drawn a flood of netizen comment. “The Americans help you to measure PM2.5 levels in the capital, and all you do is scold them like animals,” observed @北京厨子. Others, such as @绿枯草, encouraged the U.S. to extend, rather than curtail, its air pollution index (API) service. “I strongly urge the U.S. to publish pollution charts for all of China,” he said, “to enable Chinese people to know about air quality in all parts of the country.”

Kunming on a bad day, still more breathable than many Chinese cities

Many commenters preferred to see the funny side of the Chinese government’s complaints. “The weather today in Nanchang is overcast,” observed @Slammah. “But ask them to publish the PM value, and… This is classified information!” In fairness, some Chinese officials appear to be responding to public concern. For example, the government of southern city Kunming last week announced that it would start to measure PM2.5 levels, while Weibo users in pollution-hit Wuhan have been busy circulating the local government’s latest API readings.

Despite signs of government outreach, online reactions lay bare a persistent lack of trust regarding official information. Rumours that the severe pollution in Wuhan had been caused by an industrial accident–an explosion at a steelworks was one popular theory–led to the arrest of two locals for spreading misinformation. The arrested pair were perhaps unlucky; many Weibo users quickly latched onto the story about explosions and toxic gas leaks, and helped to spread it online. However, none appeared to have any sense of whether the rumours, though plausible, had any basis in truth. In the end, most seemed to accept the official explanation for the severity of last week’s smog, namely that farmers had been burning stubble across parts of central and eastern China.

But the explanation was not enough to please even those netizens who believed it. Instead, they asked why these mass slash-and-burns should be allowed when they have such a dire impact on the environment. “The air quality is now extremely bad; please, when are you doing to put a stop to this straw-burning?” appealed @freaking-awesome达 浪. Nonetheless, others accepted that the practice was agriculturally justified, at least until China comes up with more environmentally friendly ways of clearing and fertilizing its farmland.

A possible third way

Friends of Henan's cheery Sina page proclaims, "We want to breathe clean air"

While stopping short of questioning the government’s pollution readings, some netizens expressed a preference for independent sources of information on PM2.5 and other environmental issues. For example, Friends of Nature, an environmental NGO, crops up regularly in online discussion. Similarly, the Friends of Nature Henan Group has its own Sina page where it publishes regular updates on the PM2.5 levels in provincial capital Zhengzhou.

This appears to be an innovation for a local civil-society group, with local Weibo users often passing the results along. Netizens recognize that the independents provide an important service. “I support you, Friends of Nature Henan Group,” said @王刚刚百炼成钢, with reference to the group’s independent PM2.5 measurements. “Keep doing what you’re doing!”

With its PM2.5 stats freely available on Weibo, the Henan NGO has perhaps hit on an important new model for the publication of independent pollution data in China. Beijing, aware that its own numbers are often called into question, can perhaps live with these domestically produced API readings. It is the data published by foreign governments which, like the recent bad air, really catches in its throat. 

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Trefor Moss

Trefor Moss is a Hong Kong-based journalist who covers politics, defence and security in the East Asian region. He was formerly Asia-Pacific Editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly. He tweets at @Trefor1.