The outline of Beijing's central business district can just about be seen from a plane landing in the capital Wednesday morning--a time when the air was considered clean.
BEIJING—For the past month, while I was pinballing from North Africa to Europe, something from afar became abundantly clear—unlike the sky that has blanketed the Chinese capital this autumn.
Disgruntlement amongst Beijing residents with the quality of air appears to be nearing an all-time high despite claims by municipal environment officials that the city has enjoyed 239 days of “good air quality” from January to October—seven days more than the same period during the year of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Criticism has been so vocal that this week the Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection conceded that maybe there had been something amiss with the air in October.
On Tuesday, seven residents were invited to visit the bureau’s air monitoring centre. “We chose this time to open the center to individual visitors because more people now care about air quality and its monitoring since the October fog scare,” a spokesman was quoted as saying.
Jousting over air quality readings
2011 was a pretty bad summer, with most days a grim milky gray color. But since the end of August, Twitter users have regularly posted complaints about the smog shrouding the city—an alarming development as Beijing residents normally enjoy the freshest air and the highest number of blue-sky days in the cooler months of September and October.
The complaints have been backed up by the U.S. embassy’s @BeijingAir index readings, which go up every hour on Twitter.
Richard Buangan/U.S. Embassy
The infamous @BeijingAir monitor at the centre of the air pollution index ruckus. It lives on top of the U.S. embassy in downtown Beijing.
Most foreign residents don’t need to look at the readings every day; a glance out the window is enough to keep them indoors. But the figures—the only such independent data in Beijing--are a reliable guideline for how much time anyone with asthma or other respiratory ailments should spend outdoors on any given day.
More significantly, @BeijingAir also counts many Chinese among its followers.
And why not? It didn’t take long before some folks noticed a major discrepancy in readings supplied by the U.S. embassy and official Chinese outlets.
On a number of days in which the air was indisputably filthy and filled with an acrid smell, U.S. embassy readings indicated “unhealthy” or “hazardous” conditions while the Beijing municipal index signaled “good.” The smog was visible even from space, as one China-based photographer highlighted with a satellite visual from NASA.
Most explanations have noted that the U.S. embassy measurements include the tiniest particulate matter, which is considered to be the most dangerous to one’s health as they can penetrate deeper into the lungs or the bloodstream. These are known as PM2.5--or particulate matter in the air that measures 2.5 micrometres or smaller in diameter.
The Beijing meteorological authorities base their readings on measurements of much coarser particles known as PM10.
But, as one former Beijing resident discovered, Chinese officials in fact DO measure PM2.5. They’ve just decided that “the time is not ripe” to release the data to the public, fuelling ongoing suspicions that China’s government is deliberately obscuring the dangers to its people's health.
NASA image courtesy MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC
An image of skies over eastern China taken on October 18, 2011, by NASA's Aqua satellite.
Clouding the issue
Nonetheless, environment authorities in Beijing have gone on the offensive, saying the U.S. embassy air quality index readings are not accurate and just constitute “hype.”
Moreover, they continue to describe the smog as “dense fog” that signals Beijing’s usual transition from autumn to winter.
It hasn’t helped matters in the “trust your government” category when one of the many U.S. diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks this past summer revealed that Chinese officials in 2009 had asked the U.S. embassy not to post its air quality index on Twitter because it might confuse the Chinese public. On learning of the revelation, many netizens joked that it was the air pollution readings that led ultimately to the Chinese decision to block Twitter.
The fracas was made noisier by the revelation that senior Chinese officials enjoy, literally, rarefied air.
Netizens made hay of reports that the central government leadership living in the walled compound of Zhongnanhai, near the Forbidden City, draws on fleets of expensive air filters made by Yuanda, also known as the Broad Group. The Chinese company has been touting the liberal use of its air purifiers by Chinese state leaders on its website.
“The leaders need a soul filter,” said @ZhaoWenkui, a user of Chinese microblog Sina Weibo. “If their souls are filtered, China’s problems are solved.”
High-profile Chinese have also jumped into the fray.
Among them is Pan Shiyi, a real estate tycoon behind the SOHO China premium brand of properties that over the years have sprouted across Beijing like molehills. (And which doubtless have added to the dust and other pollution with all its construction sites.)
Over the weekend, he initiated an online campaign through his Sina Weibo account—which has more than 7.4 million followers--to pressure the government into improving its air pollution monitoring. Residents and netizens have been called onto vote on whether authorities should include measurements of the tiny PM2.5 particles.
Other luminaries followed suit, including Lee Kaifu, who once headed Google China; Yao Chen, an actress; Ren Zhiqiang, another property mogul.
In the meantime, someone has parodied one of the 2008 Summer Olympics anthems, “Beijing Welcomes You.” The video has received more than half a million clicks:
“Smoggy Capital welcomes you,
With particles in the air.
Friends, you have to wash your clothes every day.
Smoggy Capital welcomes you….
Beijing’s door is always open to you.
All the exhaust is waiting for you.”
But Beijing residents may want to breathe a sigh of relief they don’t live in Shanghai.
In Wednesday’s Shanghai Daily, a local newspaper, Chinese scientists said that recent “fog” in downtown Shanghai contained cancer-causing chemicals.
With additional research by Bo Gu.