Filtering Through the Censors: China's Air Pollution and the Internet
Posted on Jul 23, 2012 / Author: Alanna Mackenzie / Tags: Human Rights and Development, Education, Culture and Communities, Energy, Natural Resources and the Environment, censorship, climate change, environment, greenhouse gas, Internet, pollution, social media
China is notorious for having a heavily censored and strictly policed Internet. Over the past year, Internet censorship in China has become even more stringent, as government officials wary of an Arab Spring-style revolt have tightened controls on electronic messaging, email, and Internet access. Yet while China’s Internet has become closed in many respects, it has opened up in others. Chinese Internet users are increasingly able to access and exchange information about environmental quality online, and the same Internet that restricts access to sites about the Dalai Lama and Tiananmen Square has, in recent years, played a vital role in helping China to combat air pollution. As Canada prepares to launch its first national air pollution strategy, it should remain attentive to the pollution policies of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter. In a globalized world in which ecological problems such as air pollution transcend national boundaries, it is in Canada’s best interest to ensure China’s skies are as smog-free as possible.
China is home to 16 out of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, and hundreds of thousands die prematurely every year due to polluted air. And even though the government has established regulations aimed at monitoring and curbing air pollution, in the past these laws have been inadequately enforced partly due to an absence of public pressure and demand for change. Yet in recent years, Chinese citizens have become more and more informed about pollution levels and industry violations of pollution laws, and thus are now able to exert more pressure on government and industry.
The Internet has played a crucial role in facilitating public access to this information. Although China’s Internet is heavily censored, it is also a public platform for discussion and a tool for addressing injustices. Due to online databases established by environmental organizations, and social media sites such as Weibo, Chinese citizens can now freely discuss the issue of air pollution, acquire information about air quality, and use this data to demand that industry complies with pollution laws.
Two web-based initiatives that have been influential in the fight against air pollution are the online databases of The Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and the Green Choice Alliance (GCA). IPE is a Beijing-headquartered non-profit led by environmentalist Ma Jun, which collects data on the pollution records of factories in China from local environmental protection bureaus, state-run newspapers, and other sources, and publicizes these in a series of free online databases. The GCA, a coalition of 18 environmental groups including the IPE, aims to improve the transparency of supply chain management systems, contact multinational companies with suppliers in China to alert them of their suppliers’ pollution records, and integrate public participation into supplier audits.
Social media sites have also helped improve pollution data transparency. Through Weibo, Chinese celebrities and other micro-bloggers post monitoring data on Beijing air quality from the US embassy’s Twitter feed. The propagation of pollution data through social media has encouraged government officials to implement stricter air pollution monitoring standards in cities throughout China. In January 2012, government officials agreed to include PM2.5 particle levels – a type of particulate matter that easily penetrates lung tissue and is extremely hazardous to health – in air quality calculations in Beijing, and in March, the government demanded that PM2.5 and ozone levels be included in readings throughout other urban centres.
Canada should recognize the value of clean skies in China and make efforts to facilitate the country’s progress by aiding its online initiatives. The Canadian embassy could follow in the footsteps of the United States in tweeting environmental statistics, as the U.S. embassy’s efforts have helped inspire the online movement against pollution. Furthermore, Canadian companies should co-operate with and support Chinese NGO-led initiatives to improve the transparency of environmental data. Pollution data that is more accessible and transparent will not only benefit China but, ultimately, the global environment.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.