Clear evidence obscures truth of Beijing's pollution data
Municipalities hoping to win prestigious model city status typically report a miraculous run of 'blue sky days' in the fourth quarter: study
With Beijing only now recovering after spending much of January blanketed under life-threatening levels of toxic smog, reports that officials may soon be graded according to their performance at improving air quality will no doubt be greeted as welcome news in the capital.
Alas, Beijingers shouldn't get their hopes up.
At first, the notion that the performance of government officials should be assessed partly on environmental criteria sounds like an excellent idea.
Traditionally officials have been graded primarily on their success at driving local economic development. With officials typically rotated into new jobs every three or four years, that means their promotion prospects hinge on their ability to demonstrate tangible growth in their districts' gross domestic product.
The easiest way to do that is to launch big showy projects, either to build new transport infrastructure or to construct large-scale property developments.
For the ambitious official, projects like these have dual merit. First, the construction spending adds directly to his local GDP, and the result - and hence the official's achievement - is there for everyone to see.
Second, investing heavily in transport infrastructure and new property developments generates handsome revenues for the local government.
Imagine you seize some farmland on the outskirts of your city and build a glittering new government headquarters and business district on it, complete with an eight-lane highway and metro providing access.
In response the value of the adjacent land shoots up, allowing you to sell it at auction to fund yet more grand developments.
For unscrupulous officials, big projects also afford plenty of opportunities to collect kickbacks and dispense patronage, both enriching themselves and cementing their powerbases.
Compared with the attractions of prestige transport and property projects, investments in environmental improvement barely figure. They seldom look impressive, take too long to bear fruit, and don't boost revenues from land sales. In short, they do little for officials' promotion prospects.
Aware of the problem, the central authorities have previously tried to incorporate environmental standards into their assessment criteria for local officials. In 2003, Beijing decreed that to qualify for coveted "national environmental protection model city" status, a municipality had to boast at least 292 "blue sky days" a year. In 2007 this threshold was raised to 310 days.
A blue sky day, incidentally, is one when the average air pollution index, or API, doesn't exceed 100. That contrasts with Hong Kong's standards, which class API readings of between 50 and 100 as "high" pollution.
As the residents of Beijing can testify, however, this well-intentioned attempt to assess officials according to their environmental record hasn't led to improvements in air quality.
The trouble is that making improvements is expensive, while API figures are easy to manipulate.
Considering it's the local authorities themselves who submit their pollution data to the central government, the easiest way to score blue sky points is simply to understate the numbers.
There is some evidence this sort of crude falsification goes on. In one study in 2008, academics at Peking University found that official API figures for Beijing were consistently understated by 30 per cent.
There are more sophisticated ways of manipulating the data. Officials can cite monitoring stations in relatively unpolluted locations, or selectively omit readings from stations that report high pollution levels.
Whatever the preferred method, it appears clear local officials are indeed doctoring pollution figures to burnish their environmental credentials.
In a study published last month, Chen Yuyu from Peking University, Shi Guang from the Development Research Centre of the State Council and their co-authors found sharp discontinuities in the data reported by governments approaching the cut-off for model city status.
Municipalities hoping to win model city status typically report a miraculous run of blue sky days in the fourth quarter of the year, just in time to achieve the necessary 310-day threshold.
However, once model status has been awarded, and the local officials duly credited for their performance, the data tends to show pollution returning to its normal levels.
"These patterns suggest data manipulation," conclude the study's authors.
Clearly attempts to grade officials by their environmental performance won't work as long as local governments themselves are responsible for collecting and reporting the data.
If Beijing really wants to combat pollution, it will have to create an independent agency with the power to monitor air quality across the country - and to publish its results.
Only then will officials deliver genuinely blue skies.