Why fume now at U.S. over air data?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am


Beijing has finally let the cat out of the bag, admitting just how offended it has been by the release of air pollution readings by US diplomatic missions on the mainland.

The US embassy in Beijing and its consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou must stop the 'irresponsible' practice of publishing their own real-time monitoring data online, mainland officials said this month.

It is the first time that Beijing has publicly demanded an end to the popular online service, which began in Beijing in 2009 and is updated hourly on Twitter.

While it is no secret that the central government has been annoyed almost since day one, it had previously only expressed its opposition in closed-door diplomatic meetings. Documents released by WikiLeaks said foreign ministry officials summoned American diplomats to protest over the issue in 2009.

So why has Beijing waited so long to go public and only now stepped up the rhetoric?

The reason is simple, said Deputy Environment Minister Wu Xiaoqing and foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin on World Environment Day on June 5. China's air pollution is a sovereign issue and the US has meddled in internal affairs by publishing 'unwarranted' data online.

It was no coincidence that they both spoke out on the same day, at separate functions, or that an environmental official cited ambiguous provisions of the Vienna conventions on diplomatic and consular relations to make his case.

But their argument is tenuous at best, with mainland experts on international affairs and environmental diplomacy finding it confusing and a bit far-fetched.

And, more importantly, it underlines yet again that despite its increasing assertiveness, the government is obsessed with its own image and still lacks the guts to face the reality of air pollution and reconsider its full-speed-ahead approach to development.

The mainland has an avalanche of environmental woes, from smog-filled air to foul rivers, but many environmentalists say it is even more worrying the government no longer is ashamed of the glaring gap between China and industrialised countries in environmental standards and quality.

Instead, mainland authorities often deflect criticism and seek to justify their secretiveness on matters of public interest by citing China's unique national conditions and the government's overriding priority of maintaining stability.

Sadly, the tug-of-war over levels of health-threatening PM2.5, inhalable airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, shows exactly why such concerns are valid.

Until the embassy began publishing pollution data, mainlanders lacked access to continued statistical evidence of the country's 'crazy bad' air pollution. For many, including expatriates, it was the US embassy's efforts to uncover the truth that shed light on the dirty secrets behind the mainland government's tally of 'blue-sky' days.

And thanks to the mushrooming of mobile phone apps based on the embassy's data, residents realise that their fears about dirty air, based on empirical evidence, can be justified. Public outrage culminated in a nationwide outcry late last year that finally forced the government to heed public concerns.

Although mainland authorities started monitoring PM2.5 levels well before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they refused to publish the data because they were worried it was too bleak and depressing.

Medical studies show worsening pollution has taken an increasing toll on the nation's health, with reports of respiratory disease, brain dysfunction and deadly cancers rising steadily over the years.

While mainlanders view the American pollution readings as a viable, trustworthy alternative to the central government data, which is widely derided for constantly showing positive air quality outcomes even on smoggy days, the authorities see them as another attempt by Washington to stir up trouble and embarrass Beijing. The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid controlled by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, called the US data a 'soft attack' on China designed to incite public dissatisfaction and distrust.

Several foreign diplomatic missions have been keeping an eye on Beijing's smoggy air, but Wu and Liu made it clear that the real problem was public dissemination of the often eye-opening results, which only the US embassy has done on a regular basis.

'If the foreign embassies want to collect this kind of information for their own staff and diplomats, I think it's no problem,' Liu said. 'They can't release this information to the outside world, especially over the internet.'

Beijing's irritation appears to have grown after the US consulates in Guangzhou and Shanghai launched their own online services, in June last year and last month respectively.

'The monitoring and publishing of China's air quality are related to public interest and as such are powers reserved for the government,' said Wu, dedicating a 15-minute briefing on the state of China's environment to fuming over America's 'irresponsible behaviour'.

Seeking to defend recently upgraded national clean-air standards, which still lag far behind those in industrialised nations, Wu lamented that it was unfair to use the air quality standards of developed countries to judge Chinese air.

But environmentally aware mainlanders are not convinced.

Economist Xu Xiaonian said Beijing and Washington agreed on at least on one thing. 'They both recommend wearing masks [when going outside in the capital],' he said on his microblog.

Professor Wang Canfa, of China University of Political Science and Law, said officials 'should stop accusing other countries of interference and please show some gratitude' because the US embassy seemed to have played a positive role in speeding up the government's efforts to tackle air pollution.

Other internet users were more critical of the government, calling on the US embassy to also publish its own assessment of China's food safety following a spate of food-related scandals.

'We are told not to trust the US embassy, but can we still trust our own government, which only knows how to cover up pollution and safety problems with lies?' one microblogger asked, in a comment that was quickly deleted.