The air is crazy bad in Beijing, and no great shakes in Shanghai, either

Last year, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing caused a sensation when word spread that it was publicly reporting the air quality in Beijing. Chinese micro-bloggers cited an hourly Embassy tweet that often sharply diverged from official government monitoring. Official Beijing city reports generally showed healthful air in the capital; the Embassy meanwhile sometimes called the ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Last year, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing caused a sensation when word spread that it was publicly reporting the air quality in Beijing. Chinese micro-bloggers cited an hourly Embassy tweet that often sharply diverged from official government monitoring. Official Beijing city reports generally showed healthful air in the capital; the Embassy meanwhile sometimes called the Beijing air “crazy bad.” After much criticism, the city vowed to use the same evaluation method as the embassy, reflecting the presence of especially dangerous particulates in the air.

Now, U.S. diplomats are at it again. On Saturday, the U.S. consulate in Shanghai launched a separate hourly Twitter feed of the air there. James Areddy of the Wall Street Journal notes that the initial readings were not reassuring: “Unhealthy, unhealthy, unhealthy.” The official Shanghai government reading -- good air.

The griping has already begun. The Shanghai Daily quotes Shu Jiong, an environmental professor at East China Normal University, who “questioned whether it was proper for the Consulate to use the U.S. standard to evaluate Shanghai's air quality.” Shu told the paper’s reporter: "The two countries have different demographic situations and are at different steps of development, so it will be more suitable to use the Chinese standard to evaluate the air quality in Shanghai."

Last year, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing caused a sensation when word spread that it was publicly reporting the air quality in Beijing. Chinese micro-bloggers cited an hourly Embassy tweet that often sharply diverged from official government monitoring. Official Beijing city reports generally showed healthful air in the capital; the Embassy meanwhile sometimes called the Beijing air “crazy bad.” After much criticism, the city vowed to use the same evaluation method as the embassy, reflecting the presence of especially dangerous particulates in the air.

Now, U.S. diplomats are at it again. On Saturday, the U.S. consulate in Shanghai launched a separate hourly Twitter feed of the air there. James Areddy of the Wall Street Journal notes that the initial readings were not reassuring: “Unhealthy, unhealthy, unhealthy.” The official Shanghai government reading — good air.

The griping has already begun. The Shanghai Daily quotes Shu Jiong, an environmental professor at East China Normal University, who “questioned whether it was proper for the Consulate to use the U.S. standard to evaluate Shanghai’s air quality.” Shu told the paper’s reporter: "The two countries have different demographic situations and are at different steps of development, so it will be more suitable to use the Chinese standard to evaluate the air quality in Shanghai."

This is no mere sniping. Pollution has been behind a surge in public discontent over the last couple of years, which is an unacceptable red line for Chinese authorities, who fear social instability and the threat it could pose to their political power. It is a principal reason why China is set on curbing coal consumption, and introducing green technologies into the economy.

The timing of the rollout of the Shanghai feed is likely to be met with greater than usual suspicion from some Chinese authorities. Already, this is an exceptional year for Chinese political turbulence, much of it linked to the U.S.

The Chinese Communist Party continues to be roiled by the fall of Bo Xilai, a senior regional Chinese official whose police chief triggered the trouble by disclosing a sensational murder plot to U.S. diplomats; reports this week are of another political victim — Politburo member Zhou Yongkang, ousted as the head of the internal security system, reports the Financial Times.

There is also the awkward matter of Chen Guangcheng, a dissident who, after being taken in by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, is seeking to leave along with this family to the United States. Beijing also partly blames the U.S. for rising friction with its neighbors over rights to the South and East China seas.

A possible saving diplomatic grace: The Shanghai readings are nowhere near as bad as those from Beijing.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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