- By Isaac Stone Fish
Isaac Stone Fish is associate editor at Foreign Policy. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, he wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea. His articles have also appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the Economist, and the Los Angeles Times.
2013 has been an extraordinarily polluted year in China. Instead of downplaying the most recent wave of smog to baste Chinese cities this holiday season, some state media outlets have embraced smog’s limited comic potential.
On Dec. 24, the official Sina Weibo account of The People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, listed the areas hit with what they called "Level Six Serious Pollution," along with a series of photos of depressingly grey skies around the country. Among the comments it received was one from ‘Breaking News,’ one of the most popular news voices on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, with more than 26 million followers. Breaking News linked to a story from a Beijing newspaper claiming that netizens had been joking Santa Claus would be lost in China, "even with a radar system." Several major state run media outlets picked up on the story of Santa and his reindeer wandering around confused amidst the haze. "On Christmas Eve, Santa never misses an appointment," wrote The Beijing Morning News, a popular newspaper. But the serious pollution "has created an ugly white veil" that could block his way, the paper wrote.
Not pretending China’s air quality is anything but atrocious is a better tactic for state media. They have been widely lampooned, in both domestic and international press, for articles that try to emphasize the positives of the heavy smog. In one notorious Dec. 9 post, a reporter from China Central Television, China’s largest TV station, wrote about the "Five Surprising Benefits from China’s Haze." While the post may have been satirical — the benefits included "making Chinese people more knowledgeable" and "making Chinese people funnier" when they are contending with deadly smog — it drew thousands of derisive remarks on Sina Weibo.
Few Chinese celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but it’s still a widely known cultural reference. In the wealthy southern Chinese city of Nanjing, for example, a local news website warned that pollution is so bad people should expect a "gray Christmas" instead of a white one.