Air quality leaves China gov’t wheezing

By Frank Ching

Five months ago, Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau, spurred on by data released by the United States Embassy, adopted tightened standards and began disseminating information on extremely fine particles in the air capable of penetrating deeply into the lungs — particles that have been linked to respiratory diseases and lung cancer. Pressure for such a move had built up because the Chinese public was aware that the United States Embassy was measuring and releasing data on PM 2.5 particles since 2009. The American data contrasted starkly with official Chinese findings of “blue sky days” and “good” quality air. Since January, therefore, Beijingers have had two sources of information. However, while the data may have been comparable, the interpretation was often different with air deemed “good” by the municipal government described by the embassy as “unhealthy” or “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” This embarrassed the Chinese government to such an extent that it publicly demanded that the Americans stop monitoring the air quality or, at least, that they stop making the data available to the Chinese public. Thus, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, said: “Of course, if foreign embassies want to collect air-quality information for their own staff or diplomats, I think that is their own matter, but we believe that this type of information should not be released to the public.” This, quite transparently, is a policy of keeping the people ignorant to make it easier for the leaders to govern. China has now declared information on air quality to be an internal affair, in which the United States and other countries should not interfere. “China’s air quality monitoring and information disclosure involve the public interest and are up to the government,” Deputy Environment Minister Wu Xiaoqing said at a press conference on June 5, World Environment Day. “Foreign consulates in China taking it on themselves to monitor air quality and release the information online … also contravene relevant environmental protection rules.”

While the data published by the Beijing municipality and by the United States Embassy are similar, Mr. Wu was unhappy that foreigners “use their own countries’ standards to assess China’s air quality, which obviously is inappropriate.”