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In Praise of @BeijingAir

June 19, 2009June 22, 2009

June 19, 2009 (left) and June 22, 2009 (right). Images courtesy of ChinaAirDaily - they need new photographers in Beijing and other cities!

There's talk over at ChinaFile that the air quality issue has reached a tipping point as a public health crisis in China, and it's worth taking a moment to remember that the US Embassy played a major role in increasing awareness - possibly one of the State Department's most effective public diplomacy moves in years, albeit unintentionally. According to a 2009 State Department cable released by Wikileaks back in 2011:
At the request of the Ministry of ForeignAffairs (MFA), ESTH Off and MED Off met on July 7 with Mr. WANG Shuai of MFA's Office of U.S. Affairs to respond to MFA's concerns about recent publicity in international and local press surrounding an air quality monitor installed on the Embassy compound. MFA registered complaints on behalf of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), saying that making this data (which in their view"conflicts" with "official" data posted by the Beijing EPB) available to the general public through an Embassy-operated Twitter site has caused "confusion" and undesirable "social consequences"among the Chinese public. MFA asked Post to consider either limiting access to the air quality data only to American citizens,or otherwise identify a suitable compromise. ... In August 2008 the Embassy began posting corresponding "real time" air quality index (AQI) numbers,which are generated according to definitions set by the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to an Embassy-managed Twitter site (http://twitter.com/beijingair) on an hourly basis. While the initiative originally was primarily geared toward informing the Embassy community about levels of pollution in immediate proximity to the compound, consular "no double standard" requirements prompted Post to create the Twitter site as a user-friendly platform so that private American citizens residing and traveling in Beijing are also able to access the data. ...local and international press coverage spiked after Time Magazine published a story online about the Embassy's air monitor on June 19. Since June 19, the site's number of "followers" has increased from approximately 400 to the current total of 2500+, with at least 75 percent of the new followers being Chinese (judging from the screen names used). Additional press articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, China Daily, and other outlets, with major local online forums like Sina.com ablaze with Chinese "netizens"commenting on this issue.
Twitter was blocked on June 1 2009 in the follow-up to the June 4 anniversary, then Liu Xiaobo was arrested on June 23 for releasing Charter 08 six months earlier, and then to top it all off the Urumqi Riots started on July 5. On July 7, China shut down local Twitter clone Fanfou as well as others. Sina Weibo launched in August 2009 after China put a lid on Xinjiang and cut off its Internet, giving it a big head start over its major rivals Sohu, Netease, and Tencent, who didn't launch microblogging until the following year. But @BeijingAir had enough Chinese followers and struck such a chord in a Chinese public afraid for the health and mistrustful of government data, and as soon as Sina launched the US embassy numbers were being hoisted over the firewall. China began promising to upgrade reporting to include PM2.5 nanoparticles, which it previously didn't measure.

Chart courtesy of ChinaAirDaily.com, on the job since 2007.

With the latest "air-pocalypse" in Beijing, it's not just expats but everyone talking about air purifiers the way that teen-age boys talk about cars. PM2.5 is basic vocabulary and a key fashion choice is whether to go with a knitted cloth mask (don't), 3M N90 disposable mask (reliable, cheap, ugly) or the Respro masks that make you look like Bane from Dark Knight Rises (Expensive, less data on effectiveness). Now you can buy Spaceballs-style cans of air! As recently as last June, government officials were complaining that @BeijingAir was unscientific and unlawful, which is not completely unfounded but no longer tenable. It's going take years to clean up the air, and @BeijingAir didn't create the issue so much as give people information in plain English (literally) that they could use to articulate what they already knew. But that's actually pretty cool. Bonus: Check out China.aqi.greatnumbers.org, courtesy of Frederic Blanc-Brude of the EDHEC-Risk Institute, offering a nifty chart and open data on AQI levels in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu.

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