Nearly three years into a "war on pollution", in which large swathes of northern China are periodically engulfed in thick, toxic smog, with dangerous air quality readings in major cities like Beijing, Tianjin and Xian forcing many people to stay in doors and shutting down industries, causing ship traffic jams in local ports, and even adversely impacting the local economy, China has realizing that it needs to take more "innovative" measure to make sure it does not lose this particular war. Which explains why local media reported on Tuesday that China is suspending local meteorological bureaus from issuing smog alerts, raising suspicions the government is attempting to suppress information about the country’s air pollution as public anger over the issue grows.
China’s Meteorological Administration notified local bureaus Tuesday to “immediately stop issuing smog alerts”, according to a photo of a notice posted on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, AFP reports. Instead, of smog, local departments can issue alerts for “fog” when visibility is less than 10 km, according to the notice.
The notice was issued because local “meterological bureaus and the environmental protection administration often disagree when they issue smog-related information,” a representative from the China Meteorological Administration told the Chinese website The Paper. “A joint alerting mechanism will be formulated to consult how to and who should issue alerts for smog,” the representative said.
Centralizing the government's supervision over a topic that has lead to rising popular anger over the government's inability to takle the toxic problem, one single department will now be responsible for issuing smog alerts, The Paper reported.
Upon learing the news, online commentators who have long doubted the credibility of official data on air pollution, and any other official Chinese data for that matter, slammed the reports with stinging criticism.
“Before, they cheated us separately, and now, they are going to cheat us together,” one person said on Weibo.
“Even though they are working on a unified alert standard, they should not stop the existing alert system,” another replied.
The feud even spread to various semi-public institutions: "The meteorological administration fought the environmental protection ministry and lost," the Nanjing Meteorological Institute said on its official Weibo account. "Thus, early warnings about smog, a kind of meteorological calamity, cannot be issued by the meteorological administration," it said.
The Chinese government has a color-coded system of smog alerts, topping out at red when severe pollution is likely to last more than 72 hours. The notice sets off a series of emergency measures, ranging from taking cars off the road to closing heavily polluting factories.
And like with everything else in China, there is a conflict of interest that sets off the people versus some economic goal. In this case, local authorities have long hesitated to issue the notices over fears that they will harm economic performance, even when pollution levels are literally off the charts. In late 2015, China issued its first ever red alert in response to public anger over the government’s reluctance to take action after a wave of suffocating smog hit the country’s northeast.
Prior instances of smog led to transitory forced shut downs of local industries, and the paralysis of domestic infrastructure and transportation, which in turn had a depressing impact on Chinese manufacturing production, and eventually, GDP. However, with 2017 a banner year for Xi
In the past, local and national authorities have issued contradictory, confusing alerts, one ordering factories and schools to be closed and one not.
Bad air is a source of enduring public anger in China, which has seen fast economic growth in recent decades but at the cost of widespread environmental problems. In recent weeks, AFP adds, parents in particular have expressed outrage over the miasma that regularly affect hundreds of millions and has led to high levels of lung cancer, demanding that schools be equipped with air purifiers.
Earlier this month, many took to social media to express their anger about the thick smog that choked Beijing for over a week around the New Year but found their articles quickly deleted, a move that only increased their frustration.
“When people are gagged, the sky will be blue,” said one sarcasm-laced Weibo comment. Of course, as long the people don't rise up against their government, however, Beijing could care less.