Reporters in the People's Republic covered Beijing's recent pollution crisis with unusual openness. Will it last?
With Beijing's air quality index returning to acceptable levels -- if you can call a measurement between "very unhealthy" and "hazardous" acceptable -- the capital's beleaguered residents can resume life as normal. Yet an exceptional stretch of atrocious air produced an unexpected silver lining: the Chinese media covered the event with unusual transparency.
Typically, the Chinese press tries to put the best possible spin on Beijing's notorious pollution problem, questioning the accuracy of air-quality measurements and dismissing the concerns as "fog". Yet as many pundits -- including our own James Fallows -- have noticed, the national media has reacted to "airpocalypse" with a startling frankness. What has caused this shift?
One explanation may be China's history of dealing with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, an epidemic which struck the country in late 2002. After several months of obfuscation, Beijing succumbed to international pressure and allowed its media to report the story openly. This free-flow of information startled the outside world and led the normally staid editors at The Economist to wonder if SARS was "China's Chernobyl". The current pollution crisis, which has caused no known fatalities, is nowhere near as grave as SARS. Nevertheless, the candor with which the bad air is being reported may reflect a blueprint established during the earlier crisis.