A Visual Guide to Chinese Air Pollution

In the People's Republic, getting to "blue skies" means taking lots of pictures

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China Air Daily

Every day, China Air Daily features new photos and satellite pictures of select cities in the U.S. and China. Over time, the photos serve as a record of the improvement (or deterioration) of air quality in various cities. China Air Daily, which is accessible via Internet in mainland China, comes in the wake of a grassroots push for more transparency in air quality monitoring. (The Atlantic's James Fallows has written on China Air Daily here.) In this Q&A, founder Michael Zhao explains the state of Chinese environmental awareness.

How did Air China Daily start?

We started an earlier project called Beijing Air [...] before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. A friend of mine was taking photos every day, so we started uploading them online in March 2007. [...] We decided [...] to start with four Chinese cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

You also include several U.S. cities -- what was the reason for that?

The reason I included U.S. cities is because people who have not gone overseas can't really see what a blue sky is. And when they can click through all the days in New York and Chicago, they can see that skies can be really blue and for a long time. That's an interesting comparison.

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What got you interested in air pollution?

I can tell you two reasons. One is that nine or 10 years ago, air pollution wasn't as bad as now. That's a fact. I don't have pictures from nine years ago, but I have pictures from five years ago and I can still show the difference. And I can tell air pollution has really gotten worse in Beijing over the last two years.

Secondly, I did not have a reference point. I went to other countries for short visits but it doesn't really register in your mind when you stay there for a few days and then move onto the next city for business. You come back to China and the air is bad, but after a while you forget.

But I think living in the U.S. for a long time, especially the Bay Area where you just have the most pristine air in the world -- that really registers the difference for you. If you have the opportunity to go back and forth, it doesn't take long to say, holy crap, what did I breathe for nine years?

What about the rest of China? Why do you think there's been this real grassroots movement in the past year to monitor air quality?

There was a particular worsening trend over the last couple years. I can see with my eyes how much worse it's gotten. Right now I'm looking at a link that I collected of a few photos from March last year, 2011, and I can tell you it's a lot of blue-sky days, real blue-sky days. Now over the last 10 months, I can count the number with my hands. It's that serious.

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With the emergence of Weibo and other Internet tools it just makes it a whole lot easier to share with friends this information. That's the outside factor that helps foster this movement, but also I think people are more and more concerned about health.

Also, the U.S. embassy has started to publish its own data. People have seen that U.S. measurements are sometimes much higher than the Chinese government's. That made people more critical or suspicious of Chinese government data.

Are Chinese people aware of what PM [particulate matter] is? In the United States for example, there was backlash against regulation of PM just last summer. It was spun as the regulation of "dust" -- can Chinese make the link between PM and public health?

Chinese people have heard the terms a lot from radio and Weibo but there is still a lot of awareness-building to do. They won't know, for example, that PM-2.5 is smaller than PM-10 and is more hazardous to your health. I think there's still some way to go.

We've reported on some of the recent controversies around air pollution regarding discrepancies between the number of blue-sky days reported by the government, and the number that people see. What are your thoughts about these discrepancies?

Well I think in general the Chinese government has been very hostile to the non-governmental publishing of [...] data of any sort, not just air pollution but other things as well. When the American consulate in Shanghai published their own version of data, Chinese foreign ministers got really flustered or mad and said, "Okay you guys cannot publish your own data, that's illegal."

I think that's really unwise of the Chinese government to do [...] from my perspective this is something everybody sees every day and there is nothing to lie about. You can't lie about it. Just look at the picture: That's how bad the air quality is. And of course, they don't want to be embarrassed but still it's not something you can cover up. That's just a fact.

I think right now there is a lot of local attention. It's the local residents who are more concerned about their health. Five years ago, it was more "Okay, the world is watching China, can Beijing have the air for the athletes to perform and all that." But I think now it's a very different situation.

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How has increased grassroots monitoring changed air quality in China?

Governments [in] the big cities especially are more aware that there are a lot of people watching them in terms of both publishing the data and to coming up with policies to deal with this. But I have to say in terms of the latter part of dealing with the issue, I don't see a lot of positive progress or substantial progress from the government side.

There has been progress in terms of publishing the data. For instance, Beijing just a few days ago started measuring PM-2.5 data in 20 significant spots across the city while they used to have just one spot.

So I think the governments are at least trying to give people the data, but I think in terms of the key measures to solve the problem, I'm not quite optimistic.

In the U.S., one opinion is that environmental regulations harm economic growth. Do you hear the same kind of thing in China?

Well I haven't heard the Chinese government officials articulate that line of thought, but from what I've observed of what's happening in China, that is what's actually been happening.

For example, I think part of why the Beijing government has not done anything with cars is that they are aware that if you restrict car ownership you are going to dent the GDP growth a lot. I haven't heard government officials saying, "Hey, we cannot solve the air pollution issue now because we have to develop the economy and have you guys buy more cars." There is not an outspoken articulation of that sort of a link, but I think in terms of actual policies of what's been happening in Beijing, that's exactly what they are doing.

I'm not trying to blame the government too much. It's human nature to want a modern way of life. Chinese look at Americans and say, "Hey, you guys have driven cars 40, 50 years and we want to do the same and we want to have that convenience. We want to have cars." Chinese are not going to be shy about buying a first car and then maybe in a few years getting a second. I think it's just sheer human nature that they want to have a better way of life and cars are part of the deal. So even though if the Beijing government from now on wants to put on some really tough restrictions, it's going to be a hard sell on the people too, sort of a tug of war. Even when the government wants to slow down, people probably won't buy it.


What's there to be hopeful about?

I want to mention that my boss grew up in New York in the '40s and '50s and what he has been telling me is that when he was a kid, the air was very bad in New York City. There were all these smoggy days and when he woke up he could see a layer of soot and dust on the windowsill because New York was burning coal to heat up homes [...]

I look at some of the photos from archives, I don't feel that New York then was as bad as Beijing now. But the point I'm trying to get at is that it's a very interesting project to be able to capture at this point in time in China with a few sample cities just to show day-by-day what air quality looks like. And I'm pretty sure that government and people and NGOs are trying to work together to get better. So maybe in 10, 20 years we'll look back at these photos and people will start to appreciate that. Kind of a "you know what, I think we've done a good job. We've cleaned up, and look at those days." So that is [...] wishful thinking but I think it will be really interesting to see that happen.

This post was produced in collaboration with Tea Leaf Nation.