In China’s halls of government, the words “fog” and “blue” have very different meanings than they do in the rest of the world. Last month, the air pollution in Beijing was so bad that hundreds of flights were grounded and motorways were shut down. According to the state media, however, the cause was excessive fog, not smog. The authorities have also cheerfully reported that the capital enjoyed 286 “blue-sky” days in 2011. This is patently untrue. Residents say that most days can be more accurately described as “steel-grey”.
The Chinese government has been misleading its citizens about the country’s pollution for years, but it seems the people aren’t listening anymore. In fact, they’ve taken matters into their own hands. In Beijing, an environmental group called Green Beagle has begun arming residents with pollution monitoring devices that measure extremely small particles known as PM2.5, which the government does not include in its readings. Led by a journalist named Feng Yongfeng, the group encourages residents to post their pollution readings online. The goal is to make people aware of just how bad the air quality really is.
Beijing residents have also been re-tweeting the US Embassy’s PM2.5 readings and blasting their own government for not using the same technology to monitor pollution levels. According to the embassy’s readings, the air quality in the city is frequently in the “unhealthy” and “hazardous” range and sometimes goes off the charts. On 4 December, for instance, the embassy reading was labelled “beyond index” because it had gone above the Environmental Protection Agency’s 500-point pollutant scale. The embassy used to have another name for this reading: “crazy bad”.
Surprisingly, Chinese leaders realised they had a credibility problem. This week, Beijing did an about-face and said it would become the first city in China to provide the more stringent PM2.5 readings, starting after Chinese New Year later this month.
The move is a victory for social media campaigners, who are often vehement in their criticism of the government but rarely see such immediate change. But it’s not all good news for smoggy Beijing. One health expert recently told the China Daily newspaper that the city’s lung cancer rate had spiked by 60 per cent in the past decade, even as the number of smokers has decreased. And this is according to the official data, so who knows how bad the problem really is?