China's Hottest Tech Giants Join the 'War on Pollution'
Image Credit: Flickr/ John Chandler

China's Hottest Tech Giants Join the 'War on Pollution'

China’s hottest tech giants – Alibaba, Xiaomi, and Baidu – are making a splash on a global scale. But even as they battle for market shares, they are also helping Chinese people fight against pollution with newly released tech products that monitor air, water, and food pollution. While the government struggles to keep the country’s airways clean, these companies are enabling ordinary Chinese citizens to take environmental health into their own hands.Increasingly, Chinese people are eating, breathing, and drinking pollution. Here are some sobering statistics:

  • Air pollution: In October 2014 air pollution was 20 times the recommended World Health Organization levels;
  • Water pollution: one-fourth of China’s drinking water contains unhealthy levels of bacteria; 70 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are unfit for human consumption
  • Soil pollution: 20 percent of the country’s soil is contaminated. According to the Wilson Center China Environment Forum’s Director, Jennifer Turner, “Hunan Province is both a major producer of nonferrous metals and rice. That’s not a good combination.”

Government Action Not Enough

China’s government is trying to address the smog by shutting down coal-fired power plants and limiting vehicles on the road.

The government recently announced an ambitious coal cap target, which would limit annual coal consumption to 4.2 billion tons by 2020. This is no small feat for a country that is currently responsible for half of the world’s coal consumption. However, even these measures are not enough to clean up the air in the short-term. A study by Shanghai researchers concluded that Beijing was close to “uninhabitable” due to off-the-chart concentrations of PM2.5, harmful air particulates.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Some experts say that when the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began releasing its own air quality index information it prodded the government to make PM2.5 readings public. Now it’s not the U.S. but Chinese companies who are pushing the envelope. By empowering citizens with devices and apps to access environmental data in real-time, companies like Alibaba, Baidu, and Xiaomi are raising levels of public awareness, and putting pressure on the government to quicken its pace.

Transparency continues to be a challenge for fighting pollution in China. After all, the Chinese government blocked the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s air pollution readings as recently as fall 2014 during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. However, if Chinese companies take it upon themselves to address the pollution issue, it will be much harder for the government to justify clamping down on its own tech darlings.  Premier Li Keqiang last year declared a “war on pollution,” and these tools are part of the arsenal for the war.

Getting Tech Savvy on Pollution

The trail was blazed by Alibaba, China’s largest online commerce company, which registered the largest global initial public offering (IPO) ever, raising $25 billion in one day last year. In April of last year, Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, announced the company’s release of water pollution kits. Testing kits sell for $10; they can identify pollutants in freshwater sources and users can upload results online to a digital map.

A few months later, at an Internet conference, Ma made a dig at Xiaomi Corporation’s founder and CEO Lei Jun: how much does making a good smartphone matter when the air and water are so bad?

The following month, Xiaomi – the world’s third-largest smartphone maker, sometimes referred to as China’s Apple –responded with the release of its own home air purifier, the Mi Air Purifier, which sends pollution readings to mobile phones to alert users of high level of contaminants. As if on cue, at the time of the product’s unveiling, the outside air pollution was 15 times the World Health Organization recommended level for 24 hour exposure.

Not to be outdone, Baidu – China’s largest Internet search service provider – announced its version of smart chopsticks called kuai sou, which cleverly means “fast search” in Chinese, at its annual world meeting on September 3 of last year. The chopstick idea was originally borne out of a company April Fool’s Day joke. The prototype shown looks similar to regular chopsticks, and collects four types of information – water pH, temperature, oil quality, and salt level – which is transmitted via Bluetooth through the tail of the chopstick.  If the tested food is high quality, LED lights at the end of the chopsticks will turn blue, and if of poor quality, red.

And even China’s NGOs are getting in the mix. The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a local environmental NGO founded by prominent environmentalist and Wilson Center Global Fellow Ma Jun, launched a new cell phone app that lists polluting factories in a name-and-shame tactic to keep companies accountable.

One could argue that these businesses are simply capitalizing on the fears of the public. Regardless, their products are placing pressure on the government to act and allowing the people to take matters into their own hands.

Cleaning up China’s air and water will require a joint top-down and bottom-up effort engaging a variety of stakeholders – companies, civil society, and ordinary citizens. Lest we in the West feel smug, it’s worth remembering that Los Angeles in the 1960s faced similar problems and finding solutions takes time. But the government is acting, and innovative technology produced in China can make the process faster and more effective.

After all, as Lo Sze Ping, chief executive officer of WWF China once said in reference to China’s meteoric economic development, “The big irony is that we drive BMWs and drink polluted water.”

Susan Chan Shifflett is program associate at the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum where she focuses on China’s food safety and food security.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief