Xi’an Officials Detained for Altering Air Quality Data

Amid China’s ongoing “war on pollution,” central authorities have signaled their seriousness in tackling the nation’s infamous air by holding local officials directly responsible for formulating and carrying out ecologically friendly policies. While authorities had once tolerated very little transparency concerning environmental data, public outrage over increasingly toxic air prompted Beijing to begin requiring some cities to monitor and make public air quality data in 2012. Last year’s new environmental protection law included, among other pledges, a promise to punish officials who attempt to falsify data on pollution. At The New York Times, Edward Wong and Vanessa Piao report that five environmental officials in Xi’an have been detained after being caught stuffing cotton into air-monitoring equipment in an effort to produce lower PM2.5 readings:

An investigation resulted in the head of the air-monitoring station in the city’s Chang’an district and several members of his staff being caught, according to a report by Chinese Business View, a newspaper in . Five people have been detained, including He Limin, chief of the Chang’an branch of the Xi’an Environmental Protection Bureau.

[…] The plot in Xi’an began when the station moved in February. At the time, the station chief, Li Sen, used the move to secretly copy the key to the station and a password for the station’s computer. Shortly after that, station employees sneaked into the station multiple times and stuffed cotton into the sensors, “resulting in abnormal data and affecting the normal operation of the national air-quality automatic monitoring system,” according to Chinese Business View.

The report said that station employees deleted surveillance camera video in March to ensure that inspectors would not see their actions.

[…] Dong Liansai, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, released a statement on Tuesday saying that the news “should serve as a warning to officials around the country that the central government is serious about punishing environmental abuses.” [Source]

Caixin’s coverage of the Xi’an case notes other cases of falsified air quality data, and quotes a legal expert who calls for tougher penalties on those who manipulate pollution data:

The investigation is the latest in a string of scandals that have implicated Chinese environmental protection officials for falsifying air-quality data. Many are motivated to alter the data because their performance appraisals are tied to whether pollution readings improve.

The environmental protection bureau in Hanzhong, also in Shaanxi, made national headlines in late January 2015 when it reportedly deployed tanker trucks to spray water in areas around air-quality monitor stations, imitating the way rain can lower pollution levels.

[…] Officials guilty of massaging pollution data should face tougher penalties because such misconduct is worse than illicit emission of pollutants or the discharge of wastewater, said Wang Can, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law.

“The practice can do more damage by compromising decision-making in environmental protection policies at the national level,” he said. [Source]

Caixin also recently reported on the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s plans to launch China’s second national pollution survey next year, and on the MEP’s castigation of several Beijing district regulators for their failure to adequately address .

Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution” in 2014, after public anger over air quality reached new heights. In November of that year, Xi Jinping signed an informal pledge with Barack Obama to cap emissions by 2030, and in June of last year Beijing submitted a formal carbon reduction pledge to the U.N. At annual top political meetings in March the environment was again a main topic of discussion.

Reports released last year showed that coal use in China fell by just over two percent in 2014, contributing to a five percent drop in carbon emissions in early 2015. While this was welcomed as good news, subsequent studies showed that official coal consumption statistics for 2000-2013 were higher than originally reported. Reports from early this year showed a further drop in coal use last year due to emission reduction efforts and a continuing economic slowdown that has hit the coal industry. Despite policy efforts aimed at battling China’s notorious urban , a report released by researchers from Tsinghua University and the U.S.-based Health Effects Institute showed that air pollution-related deaths would likely continue to rise over the next 15 years even as the skies clear.

While air pollution is an issue that most affects China’s growing population of urbanites, is also drastically affecting those in more far-flung regions of the country. Earlier this week, The New York Times’ Edward Wong and Josh Haner filed a multimedia report on government relocation programs for “ecological migrants” in the arid northwestern region of Ningxia:

China calls them “ecological migrants”: 329,000 people whom the government had relocated from lands distressed by climate change, industrialization, poor policies and human activity to 161 hastily built villages. They were the fifth wave in an environmental and poverty alleviation program that has resettled 1.14 million residents of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a territory of dunes and mosques and camels along the ancient Silk Road.

[…] What China is doing in Ningxia and a few other provinces hit hard by drought and other natural and man-made disasters is a harbinger of actions that governments around the globe, including the United States, could take as they grapple with climate change, which is expected to displace millions of people in the coming decades.

China has been battered by relentless degradation of the land and worsening weather patterns, including the northern drought. But mass resettlement has brought its own profound problems, embodied in the struggles of the Ma family and their neighbors. […] [Source]

See also Wong and Hader’s multimedia report on those dwelling in the rapidly expanding Tengger Desert, and Wong’s interview with Oxford geography researcher Troy Sternberg on how government control and resettlement policy is shaping the discussion of deserts in China.