Almost two years ago, in an attempt to fulfill a New Year’s resolution about staying positive, I listed the “Top 5 Benefits of Smog” for my blog about life in Beijing. I was kidding, obviously—as I’ve written before, the city’s poisonous air sapped my spirit and drove me back to the States. So imagine my surprise when, earlier this week, one of China’s biggest state-run news agencies did its own version of my satire, publishing an online article titled “Five Surprising Benefits From China's Haze.”
Folks in my former home weren’t amused, in part because CCTV (China Central Television) and other state-run media outlets have a long history of putting a positive spin on the country’s terrible air pollution. (The CCTV post was followed the next day by a report in the nationalistic newspaper Global Times claiming that smog was helpful to the Chinese military because it obscured spy satellites and missile attacks.) Other headlines over the years have declared imaginary improvements in air quality, reported completely made up numbers of “blue sky days,” and falsified pollution readings.
When all you want is to know whether it’s safe to go outside or let your kids walk to school, these government shenanigans are completely insufferable. Especially when the answer is often “no.” Statistics released earlier this year by the Ministry of Environmental Protection showed that air quality in Beijing was deemed unsafe for more than 60 percent of the days in the first half of 2013. And it’s almost as bad across the rest of the country, where air pollution results in a host of long-term health problems that lead to 1.2 million premature deaths a year.
The Chinese government is only beginning to respond earnestly to the public demand for accurate air quality data, and although state censorship of environmental news is definitely loosening up, that relationship is still shaky. When it comes to information about smog in China, the public is still pushing for a bare minimum of facts—so trying to decipher if an article is intended as satire or just another insulting bit of propaganda is obviously going to cause tempers to flare.
To me, though, what’s more interesting and important is that these “news” stories provided an opportunity for Chinese citizens to make their displeasure about air pollution clear again, and demand action. After social media and independent Chinese media outlets attacked the pro-smog articles, both were quickly taken down. Xinhua, the mothership of Chinese state-run news, even flip-flopped, issuing a blog post labeling the CCTV article as reprehensible.
A push towards transparency, fueled by the Internet, is undoubtedly taking place, and that movement can only have a positive impact on the Chinese government’s commitment to clean up environmental problems. Earlier this year, for example, China announced that it will devote $275 billion (roughly the GDP of Hong Kong) to fighting air pollution over the next five years. After all, when you can’t hide or ignore the problem—and in China, it’s literally all around you—the only thing left to do is fix it. And that’s no joke.
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