Monday morning June 11, 9:45 a.m., a microblogging account devoted to news about China’s Hubei Province tweeted three photos depicting downtown buildings wrapped in gray-orange haze.
According to the text, they had just been taken in downtown Wuhan, Hubei's provincial capital, population 10 million : “It’s suddenly enveloped by smog and the air is thick with a combustible smoky smell! Is it like this where you are?”
Across the city, netizens filled the comment section with brief affirmations of pollution. “Here on the Wuchang side, we’re buried in fog!” replied a commentator. “Hongshan District, here it’s the same. It seems like it’s all of Wuhan!” wrote another, just seconds later. Fumed a third: “Today from the Hangkou Railway Station to Huangpu Street it all smells like this terrible odor. I don’t know where it comes from.”
At 11:16 AM, the Wuhan Environmental Protection Bureau, using the microblogging site Sina Weibo, reported an astonishing decline in the city’s air quality. For most of previous 24 hours there had been 66 micrograms per cubic meter of polluting fine particles (known as PM 2.5 for particles of 2.5 microns or less) in Wuhan’s air. But over the last hour, for reasons unknown, the level of fine particles had jumped to 589 micrograms per square meter, and by 2 in the afternoon the measurements reached a hellacious 610 micrograms per square meter. For comparison sake, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s national safety standard is 35 micrograms or less per 24 hour period .
Unsurprisingly, the Wuhan EPB. soon decided to delete its own Sina Weibo tweets documenting the day’s epically bad pollution. That didn’t make them go away, though: hundreds of microbloggers -– including some police officers in Wuhan –- were already re-tweeting screen captures of the catastrophic numbers. But it wasn’t as if you needed a Sina Weibo account to know that something was seriously amiss. Take, for example, @cat77_justice is restored, the online handle for a Sina Weibo microblogger in Wuhan. At 1:05 p.m. she tweeted an otherworldly photo of purplish brown sky and ranted:
As soon as I woke up I thought it was still night, this dust is not normal, Wuhan pollution is too … disgusting, can't eat, can't drink, even breathing is toxic! Friends, remember to wear a mask. I suddenly feel like singing the song, 'Hazy clouds gather at the distant horizon, how can sadness penetrate the pure white tranquility?'
Pictures of the apocalyptic smog began to proliferate online. One user posted an image of a bird that he claimed had fallen from the sky, dead. Another photoshopped an image of the Incredible Hulk rampaging through a smog-choked Wuhan, a la Godzilla (this was later incorporated into a slideshow of other user-generated images of aliens, cats and villains in smog-choked downtown ). Some posted "before and after" images of Wuhan, contrasting clear days to Monday .
Meanwhile, other microbloggers began to question just how such a plague had befallen their city. A Wuhan-based user who goes by the handle Kind Princess Cindy, summarized a day’s frustration in an early evening missive:
This is certainly not as simple as mist, if it was mist, it would have dissipated long ago, and instead the whole city is yellow. Breathing in this air is followed by incessant coughing, it's truly awful. I hope the government can provide us residents with a proper answer, please don't deceive us, we are not three-year-old children!
According to yet another tweet from the Environmental Protection Bureau, various government departments were on the case of the deadly smog, and they’d let everyone know the cause just as soon as they found it. In the meantime, they had a request: “We ask all our online friends not to panic but rather wait patiently.” Curiously, this tweet was accompanied by an emoticon depicting what looks like a laughing baby.
Two theories on the deadly smog soon emerged. The most popular, and the least serious, was that Wuhan’s high school students were burning their books in the wake of graduation and the much-hated college entrance examination . The more serious was that a large-scale industrial accident had taken place. Boiled Universe, the handle of a Wuhan-based Sina Weibo user of no great importance, was one of hundreds of microbloggers who offered a variation: "It’s said that a boiler explosion at Wuhan Iron & Steel caused large volumes of toxic dust and smoke to spread, enveloping the whole of Wuhan, and the death of two people.” Others not only promoted the rumor, they did so by re-tweeting what they claimed was a photo of a chlorine gas leak at Wuhan Iron & Steel. (Another microblogger later offered definitive proof that the photo was six months old ).
Someone from Wuhan Iron & Steel Co. Ltd, clearly incensed by the rumor-mongering, logged into the company’s Sina Weibo account (the company has 900 followers, billions in revenue) to deny responsibility for the haze . But that was destined to go nowhere: Few in China are going to take the word of a giant state-owned steel company, especially when it comes to rumors about large industrial accidents. By mid-afternoon, fears of a chlorine gas leak had become so prevalent (online, at least), that the Wuhan Fire Department felt compelled to tweet on Sina Weibo to inform its 95,000 followers that over the course of Monday, it had removed two hornet’s nests, caught a snake and put out five small fires, but it had not, under any circumstance, responded to a major alarm, much less a “so-called chemical leak and explosion .”
Finally, at 3:20 p.m., the Wuhan EPB, as promised, tweeted the conclusion of its investigation. The cause of the haze was not, as so many speculated, a chlorine leak. Rather, the haze had likely been caused by unusual weather conditions, and a large amount of what looks like burnt straw in the air. However, the bureau claimed it had been unable to find evidence of large-scale straw burning in the vicinity of Wuhan, and the burning -– if it were happening at all –- was happening in another province. That made sense: For the last week several places in central China have experienced similar -– if not as serious -– haze .
Still, with the air quality growing worse, distrust of local governments pervasive, and people posting stylish photos of themselves in protective face masks, it was unlikely that Wuhan’s residents were going to accept that farmers in another province were to blame for air that, by any definition, was poisonous. Boiled Universe, for one, found it preposterous: “So after so many years this is the first time they burn straw? Straw ash is yellow? The stench is just like this?”
He was not alone in this opinion. Yet, in all likelihood, he was mistaken. The burning of straw in Chinese fields is not new, but it is a growing phenomenon (as farmers grow wealthy, they seek higher quality feed than hay for their livestock) that’s having a real and deleterious effect on Chinese air quality. A 2008 study suggested that 11.5 percent of the fine particulate air pollution generated in China between 2000 and 2003 was a result of crop burning. Beijing Olympic officials were so worried that they banned the practice in nearby provinces before 2008 games .
Nonetheless, as of Tuesday night, Chinese state media is reporting that crop burning is “believed ” to be the cause of a haze that has spread well beyond Wuhan, and now envelopes several provinces, reducing visibility to as little as 60 feet. Curiously, though, no footage of burning fields has yet appeared in the state media. Meanwhile, two men accused of spreading the rumors about an accident at state-owned Wuhan Iron & Steel were apprehended and placed in administrative detention.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.