Finer details of atmospheric science in Beijing

by Frank Ching

In July 2009, China’s Foreign Ministry made a demand of the American embassy: Stop taking measurements of air pollution in Beijing available to ordinary Chinese since they conflicted with official data and could lead to “confusion” among the public and undesirable “social consequences.”

The Americans refused to comply. For the past 2½ years, they have continued to announce hourly their findings of the air quality over the embassy, which is in a not-that-polluted area of the capital, and to put them on an embassy-managed Twitter site.

The trouble is that while the Americans were measuring — and disclosing — the concentration of “fine” particulate of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5), which pose the greatest risk to human health, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau’s air pollution index reflected only the concentration of the much larger PM 10 particulates.

This resulted in the embassy characterizing the air quality as “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy,” while Beijing reported a “blue sky day” with “good” air quality.

The Chinese government’s primary concern was that it should not lose face before its people and did not want Chinese citizens to be given information that can be used to question the validity of the government’s data. The U.S. embassy reported on this conversation in a cable to the State Department, which is among the many thousands that have been made public by Wikileaks.

The cable makes clear that in the view of the Foreign Ministry, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau should be “the sole authoritative voice for making pronouncements on Beijing’s air quality.” It was as though providing information to the Chinese public on the quality of the air they were breathing was somehow interference in China’s internal affairs.

Well, China was right about one thing. After the public found out that they had been fed misleading information that affected their health, they were confused by the conflicting information available, questioned the official data and launched a social movement, insisting that more complete information be made available.

That movement has led to success. In November, the China Daily reported that the Ministry of Environmental Protection would solicit public opinion on revised air quality standards “following widespread calls for the government to provide more information on pollution.”

In December, The Wall Street Journal ran an article under the headline “Victory for U.S. Embassy as Beijing Chokes on ‘Heavy Fog.’” It reported a “fundamental shift” in the willingness of Chinese city-dwellers to accept the government’s definition of fog at face value and said the American embassy has been “instrumental in piercing the veil around air quality in China’s capital.”

On Jan. 6, the official Xinhua news agency reported that Beijing would “start releasing data about the amount of tiny particulate matter that is detected in the air” before the Lunar New Year, which is on Jan. 23. The Environmental Protection Bureau had this information all along.

Aside from Beijing, some other cities have also said they would start publishing information about PM 2.5 readings this year, including Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao, Dalian and Chongqing. By 2016, such information should be available for the whole country.

This is a huge victory, not just for the American embassy, but most of all for the Chinese people. It is a victory for openness, for transparency, for access to information but, most importantly, it is a victory for public accountability over bureaucracy, for putting the health of the people over the face of government officials.

It is natural and unstoppable for people to want information that affects their well-being. They will want that from any source, foreign or local. Of course, it would best if the Chinese government should supply this information rather than try to suppress it.

In principle, the more information that can be made available, the better. And a government that allows a free flow of information is a government that demonstrates confidence.

Actually, even if the American embassy had been cowed into submission, the relevant information would certainly have reached the Chinese public sooner or later. You cannot fool all the people all the time.

This development may well have a bearing on the Foreign Ministry’s current campaign to prevent members of the Hong Kong public from talking to officials of the American consulate there. China has nothing to fear from such contact.

The more contact there is between the public and foreign diplomats, the better, since that’s one way of ensuring that foreign countries have a better understanding of how Chinese people think and feel.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. Email: Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1