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China to US: Stop Posting Beijing Air Pollution Levels on Twitter

Does this look like fog to you? Taken in Beijing in Spring, 2012

The AP is reporting this afternoon that a senior Chinese environmental official has told foreign embassies in Beijing to stop reporting on the capital’s pollution levels. The message is a very clear reference to the US Embassy’s @BeijingAir Twitter feed, which reports real-time pollution levels for PM2.5 (the smallest and most dangerous particles) and Ozone every hour.

The Twitter account has been an annoyance to China more or less since its advent, especially given that Beijing does not publish its own PM 2.5 pollution data, although the government has agreed to begin next year. This newest admonishment is probably the result of Beijing being afraid that the US Twitter feed will provide data and health assessments that differ from China’s own, which is almost certain to be true. Beijing’s pollution standards differ vastly from standards in the US and Europe, and PM 2.5 levels considered quite unhealthy overseas are acceptable under China’s standards. In fact, Chinese officials said as much in their overtures to embassies to stop reporting pollution data:

Wu [a senior environmental official] said it isn’t fair to judge Chinese air by American standards because China is a developing country. He noted that the U.S. has gradually made its environmental guidelines more stringent over time.

The standard China uses “takes into account the level of our current stage of development,” Wu said.

The US Embassy is not likely to care about this or to shut down its Twitter feed. Nor are lung cancer or any of the other deadly diseases associated with long-term PM 2.5 particle exposure likely to care much what “stage of development” China is at. Indeed, lung cancer rates in Beijing have risen by a terrifying 60 percent over the past decade even while smoking rates remained the same.

But the real issue Beijing is likely concerned about is the degree to which this data may become accessible to the Chinese public in the era of mobile internet. We’ve written already about one Chinese app that takes data from the US Twitter feed and makes it accessible — and easier to understand — for Chinese audiences on Android. That’s bad enough on its own (it’s clear the government doesn’t want to publicize any PM 2.5 data and the general feeling is that it agreed to only as a result of growing public pressure this fall), but it will be even more embarrassing next year when the government begins publishing its own data.

Imagine this: a Chinese user reads the daily pollution levels in a Chinese paper (“healthy”), but then flips on his or her smartphone and checks an app connected to the US feed that tells a different story (“hazardous”). That makes the government look bad, and it’s probably why environmental officials are whining that the US’s Twitter feed is unfair.

Despite the obviousness of the truth — Beijing’s toxic haze is there for everyone to see — the government prefers to deflect discussion of the problem, and in fact the haze is often called “fog” rather than “smog” or “pollution” in Chinese media. But increasingly, a plethora of apps that feed off the US Twitter feed give Chinese smartphone users access to the same grim information expats have been sighing (and then coughing) about for years.

[AP via Asian Correspondent]

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