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I’ll Be the Judge of the Air Quality in These Parts

When I was young, lithe* and had elastic knees I studied the Japanese martial art Aikido. Aikido is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, despite what you saw in all those Steven Segal movies, it is very much bound with a philosophy of acting in defense only. Second, in keeping with that philosophy, much of Aikido is designed around using an attacker’s energy against him. The harder you swing, the more you give an Aikido master to work with.

The Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection swung hard two days ago when he called out the US Embassy for monitoring air quality and publishing the results through its well-known @BeijingAir Twitter feed. The Vice-Minister said:

“Some foreign embassies and consulates in China are monitoring air quality and publishing the results themselves. It is not in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as well as environmental protection regulations of China.”

For “some foreign embassies” you may read, “The Embassy of the United States of America,” which launched its Twitter feed back in 2008, that marvellous Olympic year when everything seemed possible.

The Chinese government first complained about @BeijingAir in 2009, so this isn’t a new issue. The latest demand seemed like a classic soft-power own-goal: a prickly and legalistic attack on a service many people, foreigners and locals alike, rely upon. Journalist James Fallows, who has written at length on China’s soft power challenges, summed it up: “The country is better than this.” But leave it to the US State Department, which runs the embassy, to take the Ministry’s mighty swing and apply a little soft-power Aikido:

[State Department spokesman Mark Toner] denied on Tuesday that publishing US air quality readings was in violation of the Vienna Convention as far as he was aware. He also said that Washington would have no problem if Chinese embassies wanted to start monitoring air quality in the US capital and sending out their own reports.

That’s a nice bit of work, not only rejecting the legal argument but also reinforcing the relative openness of American society by extending a reciprocal invitation to the Chinese. Naturally, the Chinese wasted no time in declining the invitation and reiterating their argument:

The Chinese government has no interest in monitoring and releasing air-quality readings for US cities, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at the ministry’s regular news conference on Wednesday.

“Foreign embassies and consulates are not legally qualified to conduct environmental monitoring and release this sort of data in China, nor do they have the professional capacity and conditions to do so,” Liu said. “

There is a less charitable reading of the US comments, which could be interpreted as rubbing in the faces of the Chinese that the US is fully developed and has awesome air. (I have no idea what the air in DC is like, but it’s undoubtedly better than here.) But given the expressed interests of the Chinese people in better air and better information, Mr. Toner’s invitation seems ultimately an effective and graceful way to redirect the energy of the Ministry’s attack.

What’s the Ministry’s main beef here? Is it legalistic? The Ministry claims that US monitoring is illegal under the convention that governs the establishment of diplomatic missions. Is it the publication of the data? Is it the application of international standards to the categorization of the data? Is it all of the above? Despite my admiration for the State Department response, the Chinese government does have some legitimate complaints. The US Embassy has only one monitor for an immense city. The Chinese have improved and expanded their own monitoring, including publishing hourly readings of PM2.5 information (see the second tab). And it is unfair to expect China to achieve today the same level of quality that the US had to implement the Clean Air Act to achieve. That was a 27 year process.

But air pollution in Beijing isn’t just bad, it’s Ben Hur chariot race epic. And it isn’t just pampered foreigners that care about the air, as a burst of Chinese outrage demonstrated last year. Despite a certain amount of desensitization, the air pollution issue in Beijing encroaches on two of the most sensitive areas of public communication: public health and your kids. For a public health risk communication program, trust and interpretation are critical. And they’re both at the heart of the reaction to @BeijingAir.

Trust is in short supply these days, as we’ve seen from the rumor campaigns, and anything that calls into question the level of trust invested in official government information is likely to be considered sensitive. I’d guess that the biggest thorn in the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s side is not just that the US government is tweeting its own air quality readings, but that its readings appear to be more trusted than MEP’s own. There have been several instances of divergence between the Chinese and US readings, and this is a country where data have a history of being suborned to politics, even in air quality. Every time the US results are conspicuously worse than the Chinese results, it’s a slap in the face.

Interpretation is what enables you to act on data.  AQI numbers and “micrograms per cubic meter” are pretty abstract without some kind of framework for interpretation. The Chinese framework (bottom of the first tab) is conspicuously more liberal than the US one. The Chinese “acceptable” limit for micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 is up in territory that the US considers “unhealthy.” The Chinese AQI band for “moderately polluted” covers territory that any normal person considers awful. As for the bad days, the less said the better.

People will drive without seatbelts, drink themselves into the gutter and smoke a carton of Zhongnanhai Lights a day, and still get bent about the air quality. But air quality is an imposed risk, and people always react more forcefully to imposed risks than risks of choice. Especially when those risks are imposed on their children and aged parents. (At least air pollution isn’t exotic. You want to have a major crisis? Have an imposed exotic risk like a nuclear power plant disaster or pandemic.) In such situations, a conservative framework seems much more appropriate, but it is politically more dangerous because you spend more time with the needle in the outrage-generating red zone. It’s telling that although the Chinese government now reports hourly PM2.5 data there is no framework for interpreting it on the page. All you get is raw milligrams-per-cubic meter and an unexplained “limit” of .075 mg/m3 in the fine print at the bottom. Pretty binary. Meanwhile, @BeijingAir merrily tells you how you should feel about the air from hour to hour, using unfortunate words like “hazardous” when things get thick. And let us not forget the infamous and murky “crazy bad” episode.

Given that @BeijingAir is apparently both more trusted and painting a darker picture of the situation in Beijing, it seems likely that it will continue being a sore spot with the Chinese government. Maybe this is the real reason Twitter was blocked, although the rise of dozens of Chinese smartphone applications that relay proxied versions of the Twitter feed has rendered the block moot as far as @BeijingAir goes.

As for me, if I could pick one thing to change in Beijing, I’d fix the air quality. Beijing on a clear day is a genuinely nice city. The colors pop, the parks look beautiful and you can see a huge stretch of the mountains from my office. Also, I long ago gave up the martial arts for running, which I find similarly meditative and a lot less bruising. When I get up at 6AM the first thing I do is check the Chinese Android app that relays the latest @BeijingAir information to my phone in a very easy-to-interpret graphical format (it has a handy homescreen widget, too!). The information has to be hourly, and it has to be accurate. I have very strict rules: If AQI is below 100, I run. If it’s between 100 and 150 it depends on how long my planned run is and how long since my last run (the less running I have been able to do and the shorter my planned run, the more liberal I am). If it’s above 150, I go to the gym and lift weights instead.

I go to the gym a lot more than I used to, and I run a lot less. This sucks for my running and peace of mind, but on the bright side, check out the shoulders on me.

Another moderate day.

*OK, I was never really “lithe.”

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