When I worked in the Chinese state media a few years ago, I used the word “smog” in a story — something which was quickly corrected by the managing editor to say “fog.” It was explained to me, knowingly, that we needed to use the word “fog” to explain the gray and brown haze that smelled of ash and that grounded flights that day — just to be safe. Today, the media, state-run and otherwise, discusses the pollution openly, but the issue is far from safe.
Two state-media outlets waded further into those waters than before this past week. China Central Television published a story on its site espousing the benefits of air pollution, including claims that the smog makes Chinese people more united, equal, aware, humorous, and knowledgeable. There is, of course, the possibility that this is satire, but that seems unlikely, considering the article was scrubbed from the internet the very day it ran — not to mention that the government-run outlet is not exactly known for its sense of humor.
The other mention came from the Global Times, which said, “Smog not only impacts physical health and normal travel, it also has an influence on military activities.” After bemoaning its effect on “guided missiles” and “surveillance equipment”, the editorial admitted to one good side of pollution: “However, on the battlefield, smog can also benefit the military activities of defense forces.” This was undoubtedly not satire (and likely true), but, just like the CCTV story, it was taken down.
Winter here in Beijing means smog — a choking, filthy, unhealthy haze of particulate matter that is so far beyond World Health Organization safety ratings it’s comical (40 times the exposure limit in January last year). And, well, comedy is what we get. As one might imagine, China’s solitary online world had a few barbs for both CCTV and the Global Times. David Wertime mentioned in his piece on the peerless Tea Leaf Nation site that “Chinese people prefer their government focus on reducing pollution, and leave the smog-related gallows humor to its citizens.” Another article on Tea Leaf Nation posts a few satirical Chinese responses to the air pollution from Weibo — the Chinese replacement for the blocked Twitter — including photos of people sticking cigarette filters up their nose and a cheeky plant-filled backpack for breathing.
China’s hesitation over discussing its air pollution has even strayed into the diplomatic field. Last year, Wu Xiaoqing, China’s vice minister for environmental protection, demanded foreign governments and embassies stop releasing data on China’s polluted air — reports that were often higher than the Chinese government’s numbers. This was preceded by fierce debates, spurred by embassy readings, about the need for more effective monitoring standards — putting the terms PM 2.5 and PM 10 in the spotlight.
The serious attitude that one would expect to accompany dystopian-style air pollution has departed. The horrific pollution that chokes much of China’s urban population is viewed by many as almost a point of pride, but gone are the days when the government denied its existence. In fact, today the newspapers are filled with heartfelt explanations and outrage from the government-run papers at the shameful amount of pollution in China. Xinhua, on Wednesday, published “Smog woes reignite debate” and the Global Times chimed in with, “All must strive hard to combat smog“.
It is, perhaps, a sign of progress that China’s smog problem is spoken about so openly today, compared to just a few years ago. For a quick example, the word “smog” (as it pertains to pollution in China) has been used nearly as many times since the beginning of December this year as it was during the whole of 2010, according to the Global Times English version’s online archive.
Despite the increasing rhetoric and sincere desire to change China’s notorious air pollution, the battle China faces is an uphill one, with illegal coal mines, illicit plants, ignored environmental standards and a host of other worries. China very sincerely wants to curb air pollution across the nation and has taken serious measures in that direction. Beijing’s current Five-Year Clean Air Action Plan aims to reduce overall particle density by over 25 percent on the PM2.5 scale by 2017 and make all coal burning plants a thing of the past. Nationwide, China has a pollution problem linked to a coal problem, coal being a very cheap source of energy for the Middle Kingdom.
There are, of course, other factors. China insists that — at this point in its development — stricter standards are impossible and that emphasis must be placed on China becoming a superpower. However, now that China is speaking about pollution so candidly, fixing it is another matter, as is dealing with its effects. Matters are not always so whimsical as poking fun at wearing a city’s pollution as a facetious badge of honor — as when an 8-year-old girl’s pollution-linked lung cancer took her life earlier this year. These conversations are harder to have, but it’s likely, unfortunately, that such topics will set the future tone of pollution dialogues in China.