Dirty Air & Succession Jitters in Beijing

For the Asia Society blog, Susan Shirk and Steven Oliver write that Beijing’s decision to declare U.S. consulate readings of air quality data illegal is, “symptomatic of a panicky leadership with a severe credibility problem”:

…To come out swinging against the United States for tweeting (here and here) air pollution readings deviates from this pattern. It’s one thing to posture against what Party officials often call “hostile foreign forces,” when the matter under discussion is remote from the everyday concerns of Chinese citizens. But when the issue is the thick haze that hangs over China’s growing cities, harming the health of their residents, condemning U.S. diplomats for providing air pollution information is only going to further alienate the public.

Another thing that makes the criticism of the U.S. Embassy so odd is that the U.S. Embassy has been reporting such information in Beijing since 2008. It started monitoring and posting air quality to advise its staff and other American expats about when it was unsafe to jog, bike, and engage in other out-door activities. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks reveal that Chinese officials privately lodged protests with the U.S. Embassy over the practice as early as 2009.

Then in early January 2012, when disparities between the information reported by the U.S. Embassy and by the Beijing municipal government during a number of weeks of particularly bad air quality aroused public outcry, the government responded agilely. After Premier Wen Jiabao said that air quality reporting should reflect public perceptions, authorities adopted more stringent air quality standards and began monitoring harmful particulates like PM 2.5 (particulate matter measuring less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers in diameter).

But realizing concrete improvements in urban air quality will take time. Announcing new standards was only a temporary solution to the leadership’s public opinion problem. At present two-thirds of Chinese cities cannot meet China’s own PM 2.5 standard. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has installed monitoring stations in 113 key cities that send data automatically to the national headquarters in Beijing and plans to install more. Nevertheless, the public still suspects that the air reports in local newspapers and TV broadcasts are manipulated by local authorities. Residents of major cities need only look out the window, take a deep breath, and wonder how these reports can claim that the air is only “lightly polluted.” Poor air quality days similar to those that stirred up the public last January will almost certainly occur again.

Read more about air pollution and PM 2.5 in China via CDT. See all of our coverage of the environment.

June 12, 2012 10:33 PM
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