For the past five days, the air in Beijing has been a toxic, murky haze, but the media discussion around this sensitive topic has been refreshingly open.
From official state newspapers to the myriad online portals, Chinese media have reported unflinchingly on the severity of the air pollution – including the presence of PM 2.5, one of the most harmful air pollutants that the government did not even acknowledge before 2012.
On Saturday, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that PM 2.5 exceeded 700 micrograms per square meters at several air-quality monitors in Beijing, reaching a high of 993. The Beijing News published a map with air quality indexes and PM 2.5 concentrations around the city, and detailed its impacts on airports, highways, and hospitals.
ChinaNews ran photos of babies receiving respiratory treatment at the prestigious Beijing Children’s Hospital, while other articles reported on the rising number of patients seeking treatment for respiratory ailments in the last several days. (Particulate matter 2.5 is considered highly dangerous as it is small enough to directly enter the lungs, blood stream, and heart). Caijing (@财经网) went as far as to link smog to cancer, writing on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, “In the last 30 years, public smoking has declined considerably in China, but the incidence of lung cancer has quadrupled. This may be correlated to the increase in smog.”
Meanwhile, on January 14 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a report showing that the majority of city residents had an overly optimistic outlook on Beijing air quality, with actual pollution levels far exceeding popular perception. That is sure to change after this week.
On social media, shock and humor
“Off the charts” (爆表), with 3.8 million hits, and “smoggy sky” (雾霾天) became popular phrases on Sina Weibo, while in a fit of dark humor, many Web users remarked that they’ve all turned into human vacuum cleaners. The hashtag “I don’t want to be a human vacuum cleaner” (#我不要做人肉吸尘器#) attracted over 1.7 million comments on Sina Weibo.
Netizens shared screenshots from apps comparing air quality indexes around the country, alternately bemoaning or gloating. While Beijing attracted the lion’s share of media attention, one screenshot revealed that on some days, the capital did not even fall into the ten most polluted cities, losing first place to infamous Jinan.
Municipal Weibo accounts seemed to find macabre glee in their off-the-chart honors: @幸福济南 (“Happy Jinan”) writes, “Jinan’s air pollution has gone off the charts! First in the nation! And we’ll hold this position for some time!” while a Baoding account, @燕赵都市保定站, tweeted “Air pollution index off the charts! Baoding takes third in today’s top 10 cities with the worst air pollution.” (For context, the World Health Organization air quality index scale tops out at 500; under 50 is “safe,” over 200 is “unhealthy,” and anything over 400 is “hazardous.”)
A spoof of rock musician Wang Feng’s iconic homage to Beijing received over 604,000 views on Youku, China’s Youtube, since it was uploaded on January 12. Against scenes of ailing children and landmarks barely discernible in the thick haze, the singer wonders, “Who is searching in the fog? Who is breathing in this fog? Who is living in the fog, and dies in the fog?”
Progress in openness, if not air quality
The transparency of both online and traditional media in confronting Beijing’s horrendous pollution may seem surprising, as it comes swiftly on the heels of the controversy over Southern Weekly and the Global Times’ hardline editorial on the necessity of censorship. But in fact, the current transparency is not an about-face but the continuation of a slow but steady trend of growing openness toward environmental issues, especially when there is a risk of public anger.
The government has not always been so forthright when it comes to air quality. WikiLeaks of U.S. diplomatic cables from 2006 revealed that the Chinese government did not measure PM 2.5 in its index of air pollutants because the results would so unacceptable that it would be politically dangerous.
In the run-up to the Olympics, the government did not hesitate to tweak the news – and the data –to ensure that Beijing would meet its targeted number of “blue sky days” in a year. In 2006, two air-quality monitors in high-traffic, polluted areas were dropped from calculating the official index, replaced by three monitors in less polluted areas. Air-quality indexes were adjusted to fall just below the pollution threshold so that a smoggy day could instead qualify as a “blue sky” day. While Western media worried about the dangers of completing a marathon in Beijing, Xinhua praised the improvements the city made (which were likely real, with millions of cars taken off the road and factories closed around the city).
Since the Olympics, the public has strengthened its demands for increased transparency in the measurement and reporting of air pollution – and the government has responded, albeit reluctantly.
In 2010 and 2011, social media activism turned PM 2.5 from an obscure scientific term into a buzzword among net-savvy urban dwellers. The U.S. embassy’s air quality index helped to fuel the debate. Though blocked, its hourly readings were reposted by Web users to highlight sometimes-glaring discrepancies with the government’s official air quality index, which did not measure PM 2.5. Even real estate titan Pan Shiyi added his voice to the growing wave of environmental organizations, journalists, online activists, and concerned residents calling for the Chinese government to include PM 2.5 in its air-quality index.
In a sign of the growing influence of public pressure and social media activism on environmental issues, the government announced that Beijing and 30 other cities would start to monitor and publish PM 2.5 data in 2012, far ahead of the previously announced 2016 deadline. Xinhua acknowledged the role of Weibo in speeding up the policy change. By October 2012, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center had released the locations of its 35 monitoring stations throughout the city.
Placing responsibility, and blame
Today, while many reports focus on precautions (“stay indoors”), the efficacy of face masks, and foods helpful against smog (“eat your pears!”), a few articles are calling for long-term solutions. In an editorial titled “A beautiful China starts with breathing healthy,” the state-run People’s Daily wrote that present progress in environmental protection and sustainable development is still vastly insufficient in light of the continued pace of development, industrialization, and urbanization. “Economic development can no longer take the old path of ‘pollute first, clean up later.’ City planners can no longer treat air pollution as a small matter, while residents can no longer think only of their own convenience and not of the environmental burden.”
A Beijing News editorial criticized the woeful inadequacy of Beijing’s air pollution emergency response plan, implemented for the very first time. Taking cars off the road, closing Beijing construction sites, and reducing production at Beijing industries was far from sufficient to tackle the chronic, regional nature of air pollution, brewed in the factories and power plants of Inner Mongolia, Hebei, and Shanxi. The editorial concludes, “Under the threat of air pollution, no one can remain uninvolved…it is time to realize that harmonizing the regional development is the key to cleaning up pollution at its source.”
A Beijing Youth Daily article called for the government to act responsibly. “The government and relevant departments cannot merely stop at the timely disclosure of pollution data, nor can they be satisfied with providing suggestions like ‘avoid outdoor activities’ and other such negative recommendations.…There is no question that every citizen has personal responsibility that cannot be shirked. But before asking citizens to fulfill their responsibility, the government should first build a responsive institutional environment, rather than tossing the ball of initiative at every individual. To harmonize the natural environment with the human, the government naturally has prime responsibility that cannot be shirked, and should take more stringent policies on atmospheric environmental quality and city planning, and go beyond mere talk.”
One can only hope that the Chinese government agrees.