China Has No Good Answer to the U.S. Embassy Pollution-Monitoring

Lashing out at the U.S. only highlights the Chinese leadership's inability to clean up the country's air and further erodes their credibility with the public.

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An air quality monitor rises above the U.S. embassy compound in Beijing. (Reuters)

Last week the Chinese government accused the U.S. Embassy and consulates of illegally interfering in China's domestic affairs by publishing online hourly air-quality information collected from their own monitoring equipment. (While the critiques didn't name the U.S., the U.S. Embassy is the only foreign embassy reporting air quality information.)

Going public with an anti-foreign attack about local air pollution is just asking for ridicule from the increasingly skeptical Chinese public. Netizens responded accordingly. "Why does reading the domestic news feel like reading a bunch of jokes?" asked one commentator. "Do you think people are blind? How many blue-sky days has Beijing had lately? Do you think ordinary people will only believe your own statements?" grumbled another.

This self-defeating action is symptomatic of a panicky leadership with a severe credibility problem. China's leaders are floundering in their efforts to prevent any more unscripted events like the Bo Xilai or Chen Guangcheng affairs from interfering with the leadership succession scheduled for the fall of 2012.

Chief among their concerns is social unrest that could turn against them and threaten the survival of Communist Party rule. When issues of public concern like tainted food and medicine or environmental pollution agitate the increasingly vocal urban middle class to complain or petition over the internet, China's leaders usually try to solve the underlying problem promptly and show the public that they are looking out for its welfare. They seem to have learned a lesson from the SARS epidemic in 2003 that suppressing information about a public health threat instead of addressing it head-on will only backfire.

Another strategy for maintaining popular support is to play to nationalism to show that, under the leadership of the Communist Party, China has become a strong nation that takes no guff, even from powerful countries like the United States. These two strategies -- responding to public outcry by trying to fix problems and stoking nationalism -- have strengthened what political scientist Andrew Nathan calls China's "authoritarian resilience," and staved off popular revolution.

But to come out swinging against the United States for tweeting (here and here) air pollution readings deviates from this pattern. It's one thing to posture against what Party officials often call "hostile foreign forces," when the matter under discussion is remote from the everyday concerns of Chinese citizens. But when the issue is the thick haze that hangs over China's growing cities, harming the health of their residents, condemning U.S. diplomats for providing air pollution information is only going to further alienate the public.

Another thing that makes the criticism of the U.S. Embassy so odd is that the U.S. Embassy has been reporting such information in Beijing since 2008. It started monitoring and posting air quality to advise its staff and other American expats about when it was unsafe to jog, bike, and engage in other out-door activities. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks reveal that Chinese officials privately lodged protests with the U.S. Embassy over the practice as early as 2009.

Then in early January 2012, when disparities between the information reported by the U.S. Embassy and by the Beijing municipal government during a number of weeks of particularly bad air quality aroused public outcry, the government responded agilely. After Premier Wen Jiabao said that air quality reporting should reflect public perceptions, authorities adopted more stringent air quality standards and began monitoring harmful particulates like PM 2.5 (particulate matter measuring less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers in diameter).

Presented by

Susan Shirk & Steven Oliver

Susan Shirk is chair of the 21st Century China Program, and Steven Oliver is a Ph.D. candidate, at the University of California, San Diego.

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