Online Activism Forces Break in Official Silence About Deadly Air Pollution in China

David Barrie/CC BY 2.0
Smoggy day in Beijing.

Despite the increasingly hard-to-avoid evidence of its dire smog problem, China has long persisted in playing down air pollution in the country, claiming 274 "blue sky" days last year.

Now, though, thanks in part to citizen online activism, the Chinese government has begun to openly publish readings of the small, but extremely hazardous particulates known as PM2.5.

Data No Longer A Secret
"The Chinese government has monitored exposure levels in 20 cities and 14 other sites, reportedly for as long as five years, but has kept the data secret," The New York Times reported yesterday. Last week, though, "Beijing began publishing hourly readings from one monitoring station" and has "decreed that about 30 major cities must begin monitoring [PM2.5] particulates this year, followed by about 80 more next year."

The paper attributes much of the reversal to an "Internet-led brush fire of criticism," no small accomplishment in a country where many social-media tools and other websites are blocked.

Chinese Citizens Take Pollution-Monitoring Into Their Own Hands
The American Embassy in Beijing helped lead the charge by posting readings from its own PM2.5 monitor on Twitter. But ordinary Chinese citizens have played a big role too, speaking out online about the air pollution problem and raising funds -- in some cases by selling oranges -- to buy their own $4,000 air-quality monitoring devices and publicizing the results on the Internet, the Times reported.

Beijing's turnaround comes amid a firestorm of controversy around Twitter's decision to block individual tweets in certain countries. While critics say the change could bolster censor-happy governments, this online-activism success story in China -- where all of Twitter is officially blocked -- shows that clamping down on information is easier said than done.

Tags: Activism | Air Pollution | Air Quality | China | Technology | Twitter

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