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Archive for the tag “Environment”

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.

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.”

On the Yak trail in Southwest China…

“I’m not from here
but people tell me
it’s not like it used to be
they say I should have been here
back about ten years
before it got ruined by folks like me”  – James McMurtry

I travel to Yunnan at least twice each year, and yes, there are worse ways to earn a living than spending three weeks a semester hiking in the mountains, wandering around various “Old Towns” (however new), and hanging out in Tibetan villages swapping yak jokes with the locals.  This past April I spent another three weeks on the “Yak Trail” going from city to city, impressed as ever by the enormous changes going on in Yunnan.

I first went to Yunnan in 2003. True old timers tell me that the place was already ruined by then, that Lijiang was well on its way to becoming a kitschy tourist trap, package tours were inundating scenic vistas with screeching megaphones and hat-matched lemmings, Dali was passé, Zhongdian was Sinified, and that Kunming was becoming just another third-tier provincial city, devoid of charm or history, transformed into block after block of white façades and KFCs.

Well, now that I am something of a China old timer, it pains me to say that it was all true then and even more true now.  Obviously the Dali/Lijiang/Zhongdian Triangle has been done to death.  In Zhongdian it’s easier to find a decent quesadilla than actual yak meat.  (Most of the yaks in the area have been replaced by larger, better tasting cattle-yak hybrids.) Not that I miss eating yak.  I like my cultural experiences as much as the next guy, but I’ve always found eating yak meat to be somewhat akin to chewing on a catcher’s mitt, with the mitt featuring a more appealing flavor profile.

Lijiang has been completely overwhelmed. What little Naxi culture was there before has been swamped by cookie cutter souvenir shops and discos promising ‘cultural shows’ featuring either “Reverb Guy Warbling with Guitar” or “Sexy Minority-ish Girls Dancing Chastely.” It seems the city leaders and the tourism development board have a vision, and that vision is to transform this World Heritage site into Yunnan’s answer to Branson, MO.

As the purpose of my trip was to co-lead a group of students taking an Environmental Studies course, it’s probably worth noting that while all of this tourism in Yunnan has been a boon for the local economy, having millions of tourist tramping through the same gorges and lake shores can’t be good for the environment.  Yunnan has the greatest biodiversity of any province in China, and with terrain ranging from high mountain peaks and alpine lakes to rich tropical lowlands, the province boasts an astonishing range of ecosystems and biozones.  Of course, like much of China, all of these habitats are under excruciating pressure from modern development as well as from those who are trying to preserve older cultural practices and traditional modes of production.

Northern Yunnan is also in the midst of a serious drought. The “Black Dragon Pool,” one of Lijiang’s more famous landmarks, was completely dry and other lakes and rivers I had visited in past springs were at historic low water marks.  This is now year three of drought conditions and people are really starting to worry.  Village wells and springs which for generations had provided sufficient water for crops and homes are running dry.

During our two-week trip, we have met with representatives from the Nature Conservancy, the Yunnan Environmental Protection Agency, and the Yunnan Forestry Department. All groups recognize the problem, and each proposed similar stop-gap measures (encouraging ‘greener’ technology, educating the people about the importance of conservation) but few seemed to have concrete answers to the fundamental problems facing the province. What does a modern Yunnan look like? Is there a place in that modern Yunnan for all ethnic groups to take part in that modernity to the extent they wish while continuing those cultural practices they (not the tourist companies) feel are important? Can all of this be done and still preserve Yunnan’s rich ecological legacy?

For those of us who live in China’s cities, the pressures of modernization are all too familiar.  Kunming certainly hasn’t caught up with Beijing in terms of automobile usage and post-consumption pollution, but by Jeepus it’s trying.  Right now Kunming is still in the “Holy Shit! Mopeds are Cool! You can Drive them Anywhere!” stage of development.  Frankly, I’m not sure which is worse: Beijing’s soul crushing traffic or Kunming residents riding their mopeds over and on every available surface and space.

The problems of rural Yunnan are more complicated and less about consumption than about the difficulties of balancing development and conservation, although there are some success stories.

In central Yunnan, a national park has been established with the help of the Nature Conservancy to protect the endangered Yunnan Golden Monkey.  Bearing a not-so-slight resemblance to Steven Tyler, these alpine primates have been under extreme pressure since the 1950s and 1960s when villagers, facing starvation as a result of government ‘rural reform’ policies, slaughtered the monkeys in the thousands for food.  Now down to fewer than 500 individuals, most of the remaining population lives within the borders of Laojun Mountain National Park.  The key to the park’s success was the decision to utilize local knowledge and retrain local hunters, most of whom are Lisu, to work as park rangers.  Unlike the lowland Naxi, the Lisu have long been more accustomed to hunting the hills central Yunnan than being settled in villages.  While the Lisu are no longer allowed to (legally) hunt, the National Park gives the them a chance to put those skills to use in conservation.

The problem, as always, comes down to money. Where does it come from and, more importantly, who gets it?

Almost all of the national parks, ecological preserves, and scenic areas are controlled financially by tourism development companies.  These companies bid for the right to develop the areas, construct the necessary infrastructure, and then flood the zone with enough lodging, restaurant, entertainment options to make back their investment.  A carefully constructed mountain path is fine, but a chairlift brings in the tour buses and tour buses bring in the RMB.

Several spectacular national parks and ecological preserves have been constructed in the last few years.  They look great and so far seem to also have a good relationship with local communities.  But look closer and you notice a lot of half-finished lodges, exhibition halls devoid of much to exhibit, and ticket booths collecting anywhere from 80-200 RMB per entrance with that money going directly to the tourist development companies not the local community.  When I asked about this, I was told that the development companies took the risk and made the investment and so need to get their money back first, plus there are supposed to be trickle-down benefits to local residents in terms of jobs and ancillary income.   But as presently planned, most of these sites are not going to make the kind of money necessary to repay the costs of development.  As that happens, the companies priorities are likely to change, becoming a) even less interested in sharing revenue with other stakeholders and/or b) “Hey, I’ve got an idea…fuck the monkeys, what this mountain needs is more hotels and a goddamn chairlift!”

Naturally, local residents have their own ideas about revenue sharing and some are less patient than others.  At world-famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, we were told that our minivan wouldn’t be allowed to travel through the gorge.  We would need to use local minivans…at whatever rate the drivers saw as appropriate.  This was all in addition to the official ticket fee.  The officers manning the ticket checkpoint seemed embarrassed by this brazen attempt to shake down tourists, but not embarrassed enough to do anything about it.  I’m guessing too that they must get a cut.

Now, I’m sympathetic to the plight of local residents because over and over again the story in Yunnan seems to be the same: the money goes elsewhere, locals get screwed.  I remember too a few years ago when the Tibetan villagers around Napa Hai (near Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan)  decided to supplement their income from illegal logging with a series of crude toll booths to waylay passers-by.  It’s easy to be frustrated by this poorly disguised brigandry…except that it’s an obvious example of the problems of conservation and environmental protection in Yunnan.

Until the benefits of modernity and development are equally distributed, and the responsibilities for conservation and protection shared among all stakeholders, then the rich and fragile ecosystems of Yunnan – and all of China – will remain under grave threat.

Of quackery and rhinos…

Earlier this month, stories in the Korean media sparked concerns in China and abroad about – almost unbelievably — the possible processing of stillborn and aborted babies into powder and used as traditional medicinal food supplements.

Chinese authorities have asserted that past and current investigations have not found any instances of such illicit trade, and that Chinese law strictly prohibits such practices and regulates the institutions that handle medicinal materials, including the placenta, which, unlike corpses, has historically been legitimately used to make medicine, although the effects of doing so have never been particularly well explained.

Accusations of child cannibalism have been long practiced as a method of demonizing people and groups all over the world. In the 19th century, missionaries in China were accused of purchasing babies to make medicine and lurid tales of kidnapping and mutilation for the purposes of medicine or sorcery can be found in many cultural and historical contexts.

In the late 1990s, installation artist Zhu Yu’s provoking cannibalism-themed pieces caused a furor in China and abroad. Inside China, domestic conspiracy theorists pointed the finger – naturally – toward Guangdong.  Abroad, critics of China used the accusations to paint all of the country in the worst possible light.

The allegorical significance of consumption of human flesh along the lines of Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary” should also not be missed. Children have to be protected from the agents of a decrepit social system hell-bent on eating them, the Madman implores the reader. Of course, the guy himself is mad, and the people around him wish only the best for him, or do they?

Parts of human bodies do indeed get used in traditional medicine in China. Ming Dynasty scholar Li Shizhen devoted a whole section in his monumental Compendium of Materia Medica to various human parts that can be used for medical purposes.

Li himself, though, makes a distinction between human sourced materials that are morally acceptable and those which are repugnant. Li states that human flesh and other abhorrent materials get used by magicians and he only lists them so that the discerning reader can make a decision for themselves.[1]

While the current media and online furor could — and probably should — be dismissed as one of the many rumors and otherworldly accusations floating around the Internet, it does point to a striking failure of science as it relates to traditional Chinese medicine. How to separate the quackery from the possible, particularly in regards to practices which so abominable as to be nearly unbelievable, but also debunking medical myths involving the use of ingredients — such as bear bile, rhino horn, and tiger portions — which do great harm to biodiversity and the protection of endangered species.

Traditional medicinal practices which are popular far beyond China’s borders — but are seen as inherently Chinese by both the PRC government and Chinese society at large — rely on an interpretation of human physiology that is largely incompatible to the conventional understanding of anatomy. It also sources materials that are complex and their chemistry and effects are not well-understood.

Particularly since the founding of the PRC in 1949, Mainland Chinese science has attempted to quantify and discover both the effects and chemical workings of traditional medicinal medicals practices. With increased prosperity in China since the 1980s, domestic demand has increased tremendously exerting pressure on both domestic suppliers and foreign sources of various materials, some of which have led to environmental destruction and a rise in illicit trade.

It is not surprising that desperate people in poor health would be willing to spend significant amounts of money to buy life-saving medicine, however such people should also be protected in terms of the safety of the treatment they are receiving. So should those who purchase remedies for lesser ailments, be it a cold or impotence. They should have the right to know whether there is any chance of actually seeing results from such a treatment.

While the moral impact of a middle-aged man spending prolifically on concoctions to enhance his amorous life seems benign (as long as he stays away from the damn rhinos!), what to make of the 2007 half a year prison term to Guangdong parents who stole another couple’s deceased child to make a healing soup for their sickly child?

While it’s easy to brand their actions as backwardness and ignorance, especially since such practices have been dismissed already by ancient medicinal masters not least Li Shizhen himself, it’s not too much to ask from those in the know, how one is to figure out the difference between medicine and superstition.

This is partially addressed by making a distinction between TCM, which has a long written history, and “folk medicine”, which is passed down generations orally and is usually local. The latter is usually seen as based on superstition, but then again, it can sometimes be tapped for advice.

Although TCM is practiced around the world, the PRC has willingly taken on the role of the main proprietor and the guardian of the TCM, and as such, received justified and unjustified criticism for the harm caused by poaching rare animals, such as tigers and destroying fragile ecosystems when plants are overharvested.

This puts Chinese government officials in the uncomfortable position of having to speak up for a medicinal industry that the Chinese state controls only partially (not least because Taiwan’s position in international conservation cooperation is tedious due to the sovereignty dispute). Demand for medicines that contain rare species or other questionably sourced materials puts pressure on the government to permit such trade. As a result, the trade goes on illegally but somewhat openly.

If sound qualitative data of the clinical results of using rare animal species as medicine would be available, this could be used as a way of addressing demand for them directly. After all, who would buy tiger bone liquor if its benefits for sexual potency were shown to be non-existent?

If it were possible to show (run a T-test, or do whatever else is needed to get one of those pesky ”something significant”) that tiger bones, or baby powder for that matter, kills cancer cells or kills a disease of your choosing, then we could decide if it’s worth looking at selling and buying this stuff.

Of course, as with the white crow which might show up any time to disprove the truth that crows are black, it’s harder to prove that something is not effective than to show its efficacy, because we might simply not have the necessary technology yet.

Oh wait! It is actually possible to run those T-tests. However, in addition to the abovementioned difficulty to disprove things using the scientific method, such results are not being published because either (1) good old publishing bias that preferences positive results rather than inconclusive ones, and more likely (2) because such research is not performed, which has been the view to ethnobothanists I have talked to personally.

Research is driven by funding, and there is little if any money to be made in knowing whether something is not an effective medicine. In addition, when it comes to traditional medicine, there seems to be reluctance to invest in research that rejects tradition, even if it means rejecting superstition.

For now, the man who is willing to shell out cash for tiger bones, is being let down by science, which has not managed (or perhaps not wanted) to assess the efficacy of such treatment. Equally, science has let down the Chinese government which simultaneously faces accusations of lackluster dedication to protecting endangered species while at the same time satisfying the demand for them by the public.

Everyone is left hanging, and when preposterous accusations like this current infant powder cannibalism report arises, have to resort to awkward denials. Even worse, the specter of another Lu Xun masterpiece haunts everyone involved: spending the last bit of money to buy a lousy hunk of steamed bread dipped in the blood of the righteous and vulnerable; and all that for nothing.

——————

Karlis Rokpelnis is a PhD Candidate in Ethnoecology at Minzu University in Beijing and earned his MPhil from the University of Cambridge.  Karlis would like to thank two of his fellow students for the discussions which led to this essay. 



[1] See page 189.

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