China Soft-Power Watch: @BeijingAir Edition

This is another fascinating installment in the exercise of Chinese "soft power." For my Big Theory on the nature of Chinese soft power, see this essay and this book. For a few previous installments in the Soft-Power Watch, see this, this, and this with related links.

Today's news: representatives of China's Foreign Ministry and environmental agencies have blasted foreign countries for "interfering" in Chinese domestic affairs by publishing real-time pollution readings in Beijing As the Reuters story put it:

"According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations ... foreign diplomats are required to respect and follow local laws and cannot interfere in internal affairs," Wu [told a news conference.

"China's air quality monitoring and information release involve the public interest and are up to the government. Foreign consulates in China taking it on themselves to monitor air quality and release the information online not only goes against the spirit of the Vienna Convention ... it also contravenes relevant environmental protection rules."

The "foreign diplomats" they're talking about are those in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, who for the past few years have had a monitor on the roof of the embassy to measure levels of a pollutant very damaging to human health. This is so-called "PM 2.5" pollution, or very small particles that can go deep into the lungs. Every hour, that monitor sends out its readings via a Twitter feed, @BeijingAir. Here's how it looked this afternoon:


You can get all the background you would ever want with this series of posts: one in 2009 that represented my first sighting of @BeijingAir; a followup shortly thereafter; an article in the magazine in 2009; a web item in November, 2011; and this heartbreaking/frustrating one also from last November, in which Chinese authorities explained why they weren't providing the PM 2.5 readings themselves. (Most Chinese readings are of the larger and less dangerous particulate pollution known as PM 10.)

I could spend another ten paragraphs on links and background, but instead I'll pause for a picture from near our apartment in Beijing a few months ago and then go on to why this is a "soft power" issue.


And another, "looking" out our apartment window (south, from Guomao) just before the Olympic games began:


Here's the Big Thematic Point, in the form of a cumulating argument:

1) Pollution is a really, really serious problem in China, as the Chinese government freely acknowledges.

2) In many ways the Chinese government is trying really hard to cope with the problem.

3) Some of the most heartening and important instances of Chinese-US and China-international cooperation are in the environment and energy field. I wrote about some of them in the magazine; such cooperation is also a big theme of my book. These efforts are justified on the Chinese side by the severity of their problems, and on the U.S. side by the global stake in these pollution-and-emission control efforts. Here's another reminder of why.

4) China seems strong -- attentive to its people's welfare, aware of its greater role in the world -- when it non-defensively joins these efforts to address its problems. Does anyone think less of China because it is working with US and other scientists on cleaner power plants, or with Boeing, GE, Pratt & Whitney, etc on less-polluting airline systems?

5) By this exact logic, how does the Chinese government look when it tries to suppress the spread of information that is of public-health value to its own people as well as foreigners, and that it is not in a position to provide itself? You can fill in the rest of the argument here.

To adapt a line from The Usual Suspects, the greatest "soft power" strength comes from appearing not to care about appearances at all. Billions for international PR campaigns, and defensive censorship about public health data? Huffiness about "the Vienna Convention"? Sigh. The country is better than this.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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