David Wertime

State Media Lauds ‘Five Surprising Benefits’ of Pollution, Chinese Unamused

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Polluted air is a fact of life for many Chinese citizens, and it’s currently smothering parts of the country — but that’s not all bad, according to one state media outlet’s widely-ridiculed attempt at positive spin. A recent bout of noxious smog has hit China hard: in the southern city of Nanjing, schools closed on Dec. 5 so children did not have to venture outside. The same day, authorities in the showcase city of Shanghai declared the air there “severely polluted,” and many flights out of the city faced delays.

It would seem an inopportune time to convince China’s citizens of the virtues of breathing polluted air. But that didn’t stop one reporter for China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s major state-run network, from trying. On Dec. 9, CCTV’s website featured an article, now deleted but preserved on Chinese chat and social media sites, entitled “Five Surprising Benefits From China’s Haze.” Although it may be satirical, the article reads more as a tin-eared attempt to wring an Upworthy.com-style listicle from a genuine environmental menace. Below are the supposed benefits of stifling pollution, and some highlights from the article’s tortured logic:

1. It unifies Chinese people.

Complaining about smog has brought Chinese citizens together. The haze “is everywhere,” the article continues, from “every big city” to “small cities, towns, and villages.”

2. It makes China more equal.

Never mind that wealth inequality remains deep and pervasive in China; everyone has to breathe the same filthy air, right? “Of course,” the article admits, the rich can retreat to their luxury cars or use other means to avoid the worst pollution. “But that is after all a minority,” and even they “have a hard time” avoiding the smog completely.

3. It raises citizen awareness.

Here it gets a bit earnest. The article insists that “with the whole world playing up the Chinese miracle,” the pollution “reminds us that China’s status as ‘the world’s factory’ is not without a price.”

4. Chinese people are funnier when they are contending with deadly smog.

The article lists a number of popular smog-related wisecracks. The best example from a meager crop: “We’re never farther away than when we hold hands on the street — and I can’t see you.”

5. The haze makes Chinese people more knowledgeable.

The article concludes that “through the arguments and the jokes” surrounding China’s pollution, “our knowledge of meteorology, geography, physics, chemistry, and history has progressed.” Also, students of English have added terms like “haze” and “smog” to their lexicon.

Whatever the article’s intent — to assuage readers, or to make them laugh — it seems to have backfired. Thousands of users on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, have derided the effort, with the account for Chutian Metropolis Daily, a small newspaper based in the industrial city of Wuhan, writing, “Only someone poisoned by the smog would be stupid enough to say something like this.” Keen to the surrounding ridicule, most major outlets that carried the story seem to have removed it: The ill-fated feature could not be found on the front page of the CCTV site, while the website for state-run service Xinhua appears to have deleted the essay. Both have belatedly discovered that Chinese people prefer their government focus on reducing pollution, and leave the smog-related gallows humor to its citizens.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
  • Shovon Chowdhury

    That was satire, right? The writer was actually a funny guy?

    • Cedrik Thibert

      When you know Chinese are all suffering from that very toxic air, I don’t see where it could be funny at all. It’s humiliating and it’s very bad humor, because for a Chinese civiliant it is not funny. It’s only funny for people who hates Chinese… because it kills them. Unacceptable behaviour of the Chinese government not to say the least, this kind of satire should stay in their sick brain, noone in China is laughing.

  • Anastasia Mark

    Does TLN have a copy of the original Chinese article that you can link to?

  • SoySoy

    this is such a useless article. It makes absolutely no sense.

  • skipper

    this article did not help me at all

  • Cedrik Thibert

    What was the author of this top 5 list thinking? Our pollution is killing people and it’s not so bad?? Was he thinking it was some kind of joke, because he can’t be serious right? If that is so, how come he thinks anyone in China would laugh? I mean come on!