Chinese Desperate for Clean Air Organize Protests Online: Adam Minter

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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On Nov. 19, Yu Ping, a Beijinger and concerned father of one, mailed a simple request to officials at the Beijing Environmental Protection Agency. He asked if they would publicly disclose all of the air-pollution data they collect. After mailing his letter, Yu tweeted about it on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog.

Two years ago, Yu's petition might have been the end of the matter: Chinese government officials are notorious for their lack of responsiveness to the public. But that was before the advent of the Chinese microblogs that now have hundreds of millions of followers. Despite rumors and evidence of Internet and media crackdowns, ordinary Chinese are using microblogs as platforms for activism.

Beijing's air quality is worsening by the day. At the moment, there are two scales for measuring it. One quantifies relatively large particulates, like dust. This standard is called PM10, and it’s been used by Beijing's Environmental Protection Agency since 1982. The second takes into account the much smaller, but deadlier, particulates that actually cause smog. This standard is known as PM2.5, which is used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2008, the U.S. embassy in Beijing installed a PM2.5 monitor on its compound and began posting its measurements, on an hourly basis, to Twitter. This didn't please Chinese authorities: What Beijing labeled a “good” air day under PM10 turned out to be an unhealthy air day under PM2.5.

Alas, Twitter is blocked in China, and thus the embassy data is available only to those who know how to get around the government's Internet controls, or who know where to find the data that is re-posted elsewhere. As it happens, Beijing’s EPA also claims to collect PM2.5 data and says it is willing to share it with the Chinese people –- in the future.

Yu found the fact that the Beijing EPA and foreigners have access to PM2.5 data and Chinese citizens don’t infuriating. Not surprisingly, many of his fellow citizens did too.

In his written request to the Beijing EPA, Yu asked for PM2.5 data from Oct. 1 to Nov. 18. Yu's tweet to his modest number of followers about his request included an image of the express mail airbill, along with the comment: “The data isn’t just for foreigners to know.”

The post was forwarded a couple of hundred times, with almost universally supportive comments.

Two days later, Yu returned to Weibo to post an update:

The Beijing Environmental Protection Agency called me today and asked me if I would consider withdrawing my request for a disclosure of Beijing PM2.5 data. They said that EPA’s PM2.5 data is incomplete, and does not include daily monitoring. I said okay, provide the monitoring data that you have. EPA answered that their PM2.5 monitoring data is for research purposes and, per information disclosure regulations, they cannot disclose it. I asked them to give me this information in writing.

This post was forwarded 763 times. These responses, too, were mostly supportive, with many expressing outrage at the suggestion that the PM2.5 data isn’t being collected on a regular basis.

“That’s too messed up!” exclaimed Justice1222, a Weibo user in Anhui Province. “Not only will they not disclose the data, they won’t disclose the corruption of the data, either.”

Later that evening, Yu tweeted again on Weibo that, in his conversation with the EPA, they also claimed to monitor PM2.5 “only when it is needed.” This, he said, made him laugh.

Finally, on Dec. 2, Yu received a document from the EPA officially denying his request. Yu posted it on Weibo, along with a note:

The Beijing Environmental Protection Administration replied to my application for PM 2.5 disclosure as follows, "Because PM2.5 hasn't been listed on the 'National Ambient Air Quality Standards,' it cannot be of assistance in evaluating the air quality condition," so the data will "not be disclosed." I'm not a professional in this area, and I'm unable to make "the evaluation of the air quality condition." What I want to do is just find out relevant information as a reference. If EPA can use PM2.5 data for research purposes, why can't ordinary people like me study it?

A civil lawyer in Shanghai who uses the handle “Administrative and People’s Welfare Lawyer” -- and whose bio asks followers to “please find me a lawsuit” -- responded quickly with advice:

I suggest you apply for an administrative reexamination ... If you don't proceed with the reexamination process and follow-up procedures ... your effort will have been for nothing and the administrative Agency will be spoiled from then on: they will find a reason to give an insincere response to those to whom they don’t want to disclose. Even if you lose in the follow-up procedures, your action will be a positive force.

Yu replied that he would follow this advice, step-by-step. Other Weibo users responded too, signaling the beginning, possibly, of a grassroots movement to force local governments across China to disclose their own PM2.5 data.

By Dec. 4, Beijing’s declining air quality was the top trending topic on Sina Weibo. That day, a Weibo user in Shanghai who goes by the handle "Riu Jiang FDU" (FDU stands for the elite Fudan University), posed a question to the Shanghai lawyer: “Is there anyone in Shanghai who has applied for the disclosure?”

Half an hour later, the lawyer responded:

If you go, there will be one. I'm also planning to do it. The more, the better. If all of us apply to our respective local governments for PM2.5 disclosure, no matter the result, it will still be an expression of public desire. We will tell our government: we care about this, please take action!

On Dec. 5, Beijing’s air quality had deteriorated so much that highways were closed, and most flights out of Beijing were cancelled. Another Weibo user, going by the handle “Coley," posted a link to where users could file a petition for the Shanghai government's disclosure of PM2.5 data. Minutes later, Weibo users piled on, giving further instructions about how to press for air-pollution data.

As political movements go, this is a modest start toward a modest goal. But in contemporary China, where any attempt to politically organize is considered suspicious and threatening by the authorities, it’s a notable step.

Will it matter? Will Yu be successful? And will those inspired by him, and his informal lawyer, accomplish anything with their local governments?

Probably not. In fact, the very public nature of this campaign will more likely serve to embarrass government officials, and lead them to dig in their heels further.

But the failure of these requests shouldn’t obscure the quiet but unmistakable evidence that Weibo and other Chinese microblogs have provided lone petitioners like Yu with the means to organize and network on a national scale. Of course, it’s one thing to pursue data, and another to pursue policy changes. But Yu’s quest and inadvertent campaign, coming during a season of media crackdowns, is a humble sign that perhaps China’s Internet might remain a force for civil -- if not political -- change.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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