It can sometimes be difficult to decide whether an item is a genuine news story or should be relegated to an Odd Spot, where readers can chuckle over the folly of others. When I read that the Chinese government had taken exception to the publication of air-quality data performed by US consulates in some of China’s major cities I started to chuckle, but then I wondered if there was something more to this story.
The story took on the appearance of an international incident when, on June 5, the Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, Wu Xiaoqing, told the press that foreign embassies (no names mentioned) who posted information about China’s air quality were violating both Chinese law and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. “Diplomats are obligated to respect and abide by the laws and regulations in the receiving states. In addition, they cannot interfere with the domestic issues of receiving states,” Wu said. “We wish those embassies and consulates will respect China’s laws and stop publishing air quality data which is not representative.”
For anyone who has been to China, it is hard to believe that even its paranoid government considers the condition of the air and cities a state secret or something that should not be discussed in polite company. You don’t need sophisticated instruments to know that China’s cities are polluted. Just look out the window and try to see the horizon. On most days, nearby buildings disappear into a grey-brown mist of chemicals and particles.
The US provoked this diplomatic storm when it started tracking and releasing air-quality data in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai from monitoring stations located on the grounds of their consulates. In daily reports, data were released on PM2.5 concentrations, a technical term for microscopic particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter that can lodge deep in the lungs and cause a variety of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
In response, a deputy State Department spokesperson said, “We provide the American community, both our Embassy and consulate personnel, as well as the American community writ large, information it can use to make better daily decisions regarding the safety of outdoor activities.” He went on to say that the US would continue to release this data, which it does through hourly posts on Twitter to its 19,000 followers.
This was a rather lame reply, as the Chinese government already publishes air quality data for Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, and does so in a more scientific manner than the unrepresentative single readings produced by the US. In fact, in the US, no government agency would be allowed to publish single-point data and claim it represents the air quality of a whole urban area.
What is the real agenda here? For the US, it is an opportunity to prick the authority of the government, which reserves the right to be the sole source of information to its citizens. While the US claims that it only circulates the data to its 19,000 Twitter followers, most of whom are American citizens, it has been quite pleased to see that these reports were picked up by Weibo, a popular Chinese micro-blogging service similar to Twitter, which opens up these reports to millions of people in China.