The Oil and the Glory

China’s microblog furor over bad air days

At first glance, one is not impressed that 37,000 Chinese are hopping mad about their air quality — that is an infinitesimal fraction of a nation where descriptions of coal-choked cities are routine. But that is the point: A comparatively tiny number of angry folks seems to have helped trigger a Chinese response, if a ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

At first glance, one is not impressed that 37,000 Chinese are hopping mad about their air quality — that is an infinitesimal fraction of a nation where descriptions of coal-choked cities are routine. But that is the point: A comparatively tiny number of angry folks seems to have helped trigger a Chinese response, if a small one — evidence of official sensitivity to the unpredictable political impact of the nation’s pollution crisis.

The figure represents 98 percent of the initial respondents to an informal survey conducted since Sunday by a Chinese micro-blog run by Pan Shiyi, a Beijing property developer. Amid an unusual streak of smoggy days in the Chinese capital, Pan asked readers to vote on whether the government should more accurately measure and disclose often-choking air quality, reports Jeremy Page at the Wall Street Journal. Of some 38,000 responses by Tuesday, more than 37,000 urged the government to start immediately to do so.

The response was not as Pan’s readers advocated: Beijing’s air quality monitoring center did not inform the public that — yes — their air was thick enough to cut with a knife. But they did agree to open their doors once a week for 40 Chinese to come ask questions. That in itself was movement — in September, the government already said that it would deliver more detailed smog reports, and it could have simply repeated the promise, and perhaps dressed it up with a specific action date. Instead, it decided to put a more human face on its smog-watchers.

Of course, one of the other factors driving Beijing authorities is that the public has learned in recent days that more than 200 senior government officials have special purifiers in their homes and offices that insulate them from the foul air, writes Andrew Jacobs at the New York Times. Almost nothing is more politically explosive than a public feeling that their leaders feel entitled to live far better than ordinary folks. And the Pan survey is more concrete evidence of a tight well of Chinese anger around the issue of healthful breathing.

China is poised to become a humongous consumer of natural gas, which produces less than half the smog-creating carbon dioxide of coal. Over the next decade and more, it is set to triple its consumption above 335 billion cubic meters of gas per year. Yet again, we are talking a country with enormous appetite. To head off the anger of its own population, Chinese authorities will have to do more shifting to gas. Volumes of new gas are plentiful and — at least for now — cheap, suggesting  that we may see such an escalation of Chinese demand. Earlier this week, for example, this blog reported on the wishes of Alaska’s governor to ship his state’s bounty of natural gas to Asia.

Yet a look at the numbers shows the scale of the challenge for China’s leaders. The Communist Party has issued a goal of reducing the country’s CO2 emissions by 17 percent in the next four years. Currently, China consumes just under half the world’s coal, and the proportion of coal on its energy palate is growing — according to a piece in China Daily, coal now supplies 70 percent of the country’s energy, up from 68 percent five years ago.

One key problem is that provincial leaders face conflicting public-stability goals — generating economic growth in order to provide jobs; and tempering that growth in order to clean up the air. Crunching the data within provincial economic growth plans, China’s current plans for constrained coal-consumption by 2015 would be exceeded by 12 percent, according to an official quoted in the China Daily article.

It is a tough equation — jobs and air. Yet, fall short either way, one will have a reaction on the streets and the increasingly powerful micro-blogs. Look for a stepped-up anti-pollution effort.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola