China's toxic shroud of secrecy
Three years after the Beijing Olympics, Du Shaozhong is again at the centre of controversy over the capital's notorious smog.
Back in 2008, the spokesman for the municipal environmental protection bureau was struggling to fend off international media scrutiny about air quality for the much-heralded Games. Luck was on Du's side then - blue skies and clean air miraculously emerged almost at the last minute on the event's eve.
This time, he and the city are not so fortunate - dense, choking smog has persisted for most of the past two months, plunging the capital's air quality to its lowest levels in the years since Beijing's big moment in the sporting sun.
And, while the world's media may have gone home Du is facing a new challenge: a home-grown - and growing - legion of internet critics, environmental activists, business figures and celebrities. They're demanding that Du and the nation's environmental 'watchdogs' first admit and then tackle the shocking health hazards of smog-related pollutants, especially fine particles known as PM2.5.
For the most part, people are finding about those hazards online. Citing mainland experts and seizing on pollution readings published online by the US embassy, critics have been ferociously challenging Du on his bureau's air-quality data, which has constantly produced positive readings even on smoggy days.
Du has tried to assure the public they shouldn't panic, just as he has done every time smog has hit. Rather than addressing the discrepancies directly, Du has dug in to defend the much-criticised track record of the government-led pollution control efforts, insisting that the authorities have done a good job in cleaning the capital's filthy air. But people aren't buying it.
'The city is like a huge canister of toxic gases today and our children, our ageing parents and every taxpayer have to breathe bad air. But the environment bureau still tells us it's only slightly polluted,' renowned children's author Zheng Yuanjie wrote in his microblog on October 31, the height of a week-long stretch of pollution.
On that day Du's bureau declared that that air was 'slightly polluted' by national standards. By contrast, the US embassy, which updates readings hourly on Twitter, said the pollution was at levels 'hazardous for the entire population'.
Crucially, the American readings contained specific data on fine PM2.5 particles, respirable hazardous particulates that are 2.5 microns in diameter. Du's bureau only offered data on bigger PM10 particles, those that are 10 microns in diameter.
'Why can't environmental authorities tell us the truth?' Zheng said. 'It's essentially the first step before they can take serious action to clean up Beijing's dirty air.'
Others were blunter. 'Making progress? How dare you continue lying about air quality, as if everyone else living in the city is blind or idiot,' businessman Li Yifei said on his Sina Weibo feed.
Another businessman Wang Ran said: 'What an irony that citizens can only know about the truth from a foreign embassy.'
The heated public reaction seems to have gotten to the usually unflappable Du. 'Don't provoke me,' he snapped on his microblog at the height of the online debate.
'Let's bear in mind that the only criteria for any changes we've made over the years [to improving air quality] are our own needs for deepening efforts to curb pollution, rather than what some embassy has done,' he said.
When pressed about the repeated delays in expanding the city's pollution perimeters to include readings for health-threatening fine particulates, Du said the country needed to focus first on tackling large particles, such as PM10, before addressing the much more complicated pollution questions around PM2.5.
His defence was widely seen as typifying the reluctance of mainland bureaucrats to come clean about pollution problems and, as such, did little to quell the criticism or ease the unprecedented public demands for immediate access to smog data.
Under the public pressure, mainland authorities last month announced they would speed up revisions to China's decade-old air pollution monitoring standards to include PM2.5 and ozone, another hazardous pollutant that has long been overlooked.
But environmentalists say there is little to celebrate because the authorities' distant 2016 deadline for the mandatory release of data on smog-related pollutants does little to address the urgent health risks posed by PM2.5 and avert a looming public health crisis.
Du's attempt to justify the government's sluggish response to the danger posed by PM2.5 has also come under attack from mainland health and environmental experts.
Compared with bigger particles such as PM10, fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, poses far more serious hazards, according to Professor Zhu Tong , head of Peking University's centre for environment and health.
Zhu warns that along with even smaller particles, PM2.5 can penetrate the human respiratory system's natural defences and be absorbed deeply into the bloodstream, damaging lung tissue and the cardiovascular system and causing lung cancer and other deadly diseases. Fine particles can affect the immune and nervous systems and children's growth.
'The relationship between air pollution and chronic and deadly diseases should be taken seriously as a cause for alarm,' he said.
The World Health Organisation offers similarly dire warnings: 'The mortality in cities with high levels of [fine particle] pollution exceeds that observed in relatively cleaner cities by 15 to 20 per cent.'
Concerns about health risks from airborne pollutants are also seeping into the mainstream media. Caijing magazine reported on research by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and a health inspection office in Beijing's Chongwen district in 2009 that showed a rise in mortality of up to 3.87 per cent for every 100 micrograms per cubic metre increase of PM10.
The latest issue of Southern Metropolis Weekly cites even more startling findings by US and Canadian scientists: for every 10 micrograms per cubic metre increase in PM2.5, the death toll among lung cancer victims increases by 8 per cent.
The weekly also quoted Wu Dui, a top atmospheric scientist at the Guangdong Meteorological Bureau, who said the rapid growth in deadly lung cancer cases over the past decade could be attributed in part to pollution caused by fine particles from dust and soot, resulting from the combustion of fossil and other types of fuels. Wu said that with the number of smokers steadily decreasing over the past three decades, air pollution had risen to become the top cause of lung cancer.
China has the world's largest number of lung cancer victims and the deadly disease has occurred much more frequently in major cities in the past decade, mostly due to deteriorating air quality.
According to official data, while the rate of lung cancer in the capital has risen by nearly 60 per cent since 2000, it increased by 73 per cent in Shanghai between 2000 and 2010.
Dr Zhong Nanshan, director of Guangzhou's Institute of Respiratory Diseases and Guangdong's Sars hero, said severe air pollution had turned black the lungs of most of his patients aged over 50. 'We should definitely release PM2.5 data to the public, which is part of the citizens' right to know the truth, and exert more pressure on local governments,' he said.
Peking University public health expert Pan Xiaochuan said survey findings since the 1970s had repeatedly shown a close link between high rates of lung cancer and Beijing's air pollution.
But it's not just in the capital where pollution has worsened.
The annual total of smoggy days in major mainland cities has surged over the past decades, according to Wu. Guangzhou, for example, had an average two smoggy days a year in all of the 1960s. But that number has exploded in the last 25 years, from 145 days in 1986 to the peak of over 200 days in 2004.
Unfortunately, Wu said, the government had not succeeded in curbing PM10 pollution over the past decade, especially in economically affluent areas such as the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta and the region covering Beijing and Tianjin . That inspires little confidence in its ability to tackle PM2.5.
According to a study by the Institute of Atmospheric Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, while PM10 concentrations dropped by about 2 per cent annually between 1998 and last year, PM2.5 concentrations rose by 4 per cent a year.
All this happened despite the authorities spending more than 140 billion yuan (HK$171 billion) on a clean-up of the capital in the lead-up to the Olympics.
However, there are hints of recognition of the problems within government. Just last month, deputy environment minister Zhang Lijun said at least 70 per cent of mainland cities would fail air quality tests if PM2.5 was part of the national standards.
That admission is small consolation for environmentalists, who say the failure to forcefully reform the country's outdated pollution standards has exacted a steep price - the fast-deteriorating air quality poses mounting dangers not only to people's health and livelihoods, but also the country's economic and social sustainability.
Wu Dui said the issue over when to implement PM2.5 standards would put local authorities' determination to tackle pollution and their ability to cope to the test.
'The primary obstacle [in the release of PM2.5 data] is not about monitoring technology or pollution standards. Rather, it is the current appraisal system of local officials' performance [which remains heavily dependent on gross domestic product figures],' he said last month, according to Guangzhou's Southern Daily.
Ma Jun , head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the 2016 deadline was discouraging, given the urgency of the worsening smog.
'Authorities must step up the effort and bring forward the date of the mandatory release of PM2.5 data as early as possible and try to adopt stricter standards in accordance with WHO recommendations,' he said.
Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are technically capable of monitoring PM2.5 and have done so for years. Ma and other environmentalists want those cities to go one step further and publish the data from next year.
'Any further delay would only fuel public anger and distrust of the government,' he said.
Beijing-based environmentalist Wang Yongchen echoed the call for immediate public access to PM2.5 data. 'The leadership has been preaching an approach of putting the people first, but how is this possible if the public is denied access to critical information about our health?' she asked.
Zhu Tong joined in urging Beijing to release PM2.5 data next year. 'Since the environment ministry has said that cities have the freedom to decide for themselves when to release the PM2.5 data, I believe the time is ripe for Beijing to take the step next year,' the Peking University environmental expert said.
Zhu said greater transparency in pollution control would help the government gain public support. It would also help people become more aware of their own obligations to cut pollution.
'It is not just about venting anger and frustration about the extent of the pollution,' Zhu said. 'Everyone plays a vital role in curbing pollution and we should not just ask others to act, but also think about what we can do to reduce our emissions in our daily lives.'
But back in Beijing Du seems to be in no hurry to release PM2.5 figures. 'There is no need to make a big fuss over it at the moment, as we still have to wait before the revision is formally approved and adopted,' he said.
'So it is premature to talk about when Beijing will publish its monitoring data on PM2.5.'
The proportion of mainland cities that would fail air standards if fine PM2.5 particles were measured, according to an official