While a social media-inspired “jasmine revolution” for upending China’s existing order a la Egypt’s Tahrir Square continues to be – in the words of one high-ranking Chinese official – “preposterous and unrealistic,” the past few months have seen the next closest thing to a mass online movement, one yet to be crushed by censors.
Call it a “blue skies revolution.” It began with the do-it-yourself air quality measurements from both citizen activists and the U.S. embassy. Posted on Weibo, China’s Twitter, the measurements posed a direct challenge to the impossibly high number of officially-reported “blue sky days.” As a result, the central government grudgingly responded with their own Weibo accounts reporting air quality data. Soon after, this revolution (of sorts) blossomed into hundreds of Chinese across the country purchasing their own air quality monitors, duly posting even more data that contrasted with official numbers.
And even as the Weibo account of the U.S. consulate in Shanghai was shut down, the fight for blue skies has continued to gain momentum. There’s the China Air Daily website, which posts pictures and air quality data in cities across the country; iPhone apps linking directly to U.S. embassy data; and even a Kickstarter project for measuring air quality around Beijing using kites. Moreover, as local NGOs and civil society groups also begin posting air quality data, it seems that public air quality monitoring has attained the resiliency needed to stick around for the long haul.
But lest we speak too soon, enter Rule 81 of the Chinese environmental protection agency’s April 2009 innocuously-named draft document, “Environmental Monitoring Management and Regulations: Consultative Report (For Public Comment).”
The money line: “Prior to official approval, no work unit or individual can in any shape or form publish environmental quality monitoring information from environmental monitoring equipment.” If the rule were implemented and enforced, public air quality monitoring could become the sole province of the government once again.
This one’s for freedom
Although the draft rule itself is over two years old, it recently received new attention. First, on June 15, a reporter for the Shanghai morning post ”was lead to understand” that this 2009 document existed. Two days later, Sina.com, a Chinese news report, re-posted the news. Perhaps significantly, the city of Shanghai began reporting pollution from fine particulate matter (PM2.5) at the beginning of this year. The U.S. consulate then started to provide its own readings last month, and five days ago Shanghai’s city government announced [in Chinese] plans to add ten additional stations monitoring PM2.5 particles.
Netizen reaction to the Sina.com report was swift and angry, using language strangely reminiscent of an American Tea Party rally. As one commenter said, “Ban any commentary from the people, and the problem will go away.” Another remarked, “The best thing to do is plaster up the ordinary person’s mouth, stick ear plugs in a person’s ears, cover the eyes, and stuff up the nose.” Indeed, most netizens had far more to say about the freedom signified by the right to monitor and publish air quality data than the air quality data itself.
Others gave a cooler perspective. “Actually, there’s no reason to ban the data. When a problem is encountered, there’s no need to conceal it. We should open it up, and we can search for a solution together.”
A few were doubtful the government would actually implement the measure, noting the number of hurdles to be crossed before the two-year-old draft rule became law. One critiqued, “Although it’s possible that [public air quality monitoring] could be banned, first look at the regulation in its entirety, then clarify the scope and definition of ‘environmental monitoring information’, and then post this article.”
But let’s get realistic
It is unlikely that the rule will be a catalyst for clamping down on public air quality monitoring. If anything, the rule will likely instead serve as the convenient red herring after those in power decide that public air quality monitoring must be stopped–the equivalent of the moral corruption charges against Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese artist-dissident.
Even that scenario is unlikely to play out. Many ways exist for the government to work with citizen-activists in delivering data and finding solutions to air pollution. Transparent and accurate air quality data is not itself a challenge to the powers-that-be; it is more likely to be met with compromise and foot-dragging than an outright ban.
Unless, that is, the challenge of improving air quality is increasingly framed as a slap against the government. Netizens may not look at daily air quality data, and some might not even care all that much. But should they begin to see a particular act as an expression of freedom, the stakes inevitably will rise.
The burden now rests on the Chinese government to either enforce the rule or “clarify” it so that non-governmental air quality monitoring may continue. Otherwise, it will hang unenforced over the heads of the populace, a classic repressive move termed “salutary neglect.” When misused, salutary neglect can lead to revolution—just ask the British. That’s why authorities will have to tread carefully. While this particular law can be handily unwound, China will likely have to traverse trickier situations as the “freedom to monitor” leads to pushes for other, broader freedoms that are still formally banned.