It’s Time to Clear the Air on Chinese Smog Data

Should Beijing residents have to check the U.S. Embassy’s @BeijingAir Twitter feed in order to be properly informed of the smog that dirties their breathable air? The Chinese people are increasingly relying on official U.S. air quality reports on pollution levels and voicing their distrust of readings from the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

The U.S. Embassy Beijing Air Quality Monitor—first intended as a resource for the American community in the city—publishes hourly air quality index (AQI) values and advisories. The AQI value is generated from a measure of PM2.5, tiny particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size. These particles can “penetrate deep into the lungs and the bloodstream and are considered the most accurate methodology in determining air quality,” according to the U.S. Embassy. Chinese officials had only tracked “more coarse particulates between 2.5 and 10 micrometers” before many Chinese internet users voiced their outrage and started to turn to the Embassy site for more utile data.

On the left is a view of downtown Beijing on a clear day. At right, is the same view the next morning.  (Bill Bishop/Washington Post)
On the left is a view of downtown Beijing on a clear day. At right is the same view the next morning. (Bill Bishop/Washington Post)

Urban Chinese microbloggers frequently express their suspicions of incomplete and untruthful data published by Chinese health officials. These suspicions are supported by discrepancies between measurements made public by the U.S. Embassy and by Chinese governmental officials. In the most egregious example, on January 12th, 2013, U.S. Embassy air quality reports were up to 200 micrograms per cubit meter higher than Chinese government reports, and indicated particle levels 40 times the concentration the World Health Organization (WHO) deems safe.

Many Chinese media outlets have historically reported  the pollution as “bad fog” or downplayed the severity of the problem. Clearly, though, the Chinese people find it farcical to pretend that air is not heavily polluted. After all, the smog that shrouds many industrial cities can be seen from outer space, making the governmental obfuscation and manipulation of pollution data all the more disingenuous and counterproductive in the continued articulation of the Chinese model of development and addressing public health concerns in the country.

It may be rather idealistic to expect China to currently be as environmentally friendly as many Western nations due to its ever-expanding industrialization and infrastructure construction. The nation’s immediate environmental woes must be properly put into perspective vis-à-vis the history and development of countries like Britain, the United States, and Japan, which followed the “grow first, clean up later” method of development.

The government cannot boast of remarkable economic and industrial progress without also taking blame for noxious gas pollutants that cloud the air.

However, there must be some kind of democratic forum to discuss the trade-off between robust development and negative environmental externalities that pose a threat to public health and a subsequent debate on what interests the Chinese government should maximize. This should be the case even in a country with a highly-centralized governmental decision-making model when dealing with important public health concerns.  A basic presupposition of such deliberations on public health is truthful and complete environmental data that is easily available to a nation’s citizenry. The government cannot boast of remarkable economic and industrial progress without also taking blame for noxious gas pollutants that cloud the air. The Chinese government has made slow progress on this front, allowing officially sanctioned media outlets to cover the growing environmental concerns of ordinary citizens just this past January. The MEP has also began releasing regular air quality reports of key regions and 74 cities. Nevertheless, this progress was seemingly only prompted by near apocalyptic conditions in January of 2013, when smog levels and PM2.5 measurements in Beijing reached levels not seen since 1952 in England in what is now regarded as the “deadliest environmental episode in recorded history”.

Government transparency is not only a precondition for economic health and the cohesion of a civil society keen on sustained economic growth but it is also a precondition for a national discussion on what form said development will undertake and the tenor of a nation’s markets, civil society, and governmental institutions. This is especially true in regards to public safety and health issues domestically and even more so if China is interested in promoting itself as the global representative of the developing world. Even if the skies over Beijing continue to be blanketed by noxious gasses, the smog shrouding the data and discussion of legitimate public health concerns should be cleared. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s