Silver Linings Failbook

Chinese people do not think a state media article about "five surprising benefits" to deadly pollution is funny.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Polluted air is a fact of life for many Chinese citizens, and it's currently smothering parts of the country -- but that's not all bad, according to one state media outlet's widely-ridiculed attempt at positive spin. A recent bout of noxious smog has hit China hard: in the southern city of Nanjing, schools closed on Dec. 5 so children did not have to venture outside. The same day, authorities in the showcase city of Shanghai declared the air there "severely polluted," and many flights out of the city faced delays

It would seem an inopportune time to convince China's citizens of the virtues of breathing polluted air. But that didn't stop one reporter for China Central Television (CCTV), the country's major state-run network, from trying. On Dec. 9, CCTV's website featured an article, now deleted but preserved on Chinese chat and social media sites, entitled "Five Surprising Benefits From China's Haze." Although it may be satirical, the article reads more as a tin-eared attempt to wring an Upworthy.com-style listicle from a genuine environmental menace. Below are the supposed benefits of stifling pollution, and some highlights from the article's tortured logic:

1. It unifies Chinese people. 

Polluted air is a fact of life for many Chinese citizens, and it’s currently smothering parts of the country — but that’s not all bad, according to one state media outlet’s widely-ridiculed attempt at positive spin. A recent bout of noxious smog has hit China hard: in the southern city of Nanjing, schools closed on Dec. 5 so children did not have to venture outside. The same day, authorities in the showcase city of Shanghai declared the air there "severely polluted," and many flights out of the city faced delays

It would seem an inopportune time to convince China’s citizens of the virtues of breathing polluted air. But that didn’t stop one reporter for China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s major state-run network, from trying. On Dec. 9, CCTV’s website featured an article, now deleted but preserved on Chinese chat and social media sites, entitled "Five Surprising Benefits From China’s Haze." Although it may be satirical, the article reads more as a tin-eared attempt to wring an Upworthy.com-style listicle from a genuine environmental menace. Below are the supposed benefits of stifling pollution, and some highlights from the article’s tortured logic:

1. It unifies Chinese people. 

Complaining about smog has brought Chinese citizens together. The haze "is everywhere," the article continues, from "every big city" to "small cities, towns, and villages." 

2. It makes China more equal. 

Never mind that wealth inequality remains deep and pervasive in China; everyone has to breathe the same filthy air, right? "Of course," the article admits, the rich can retreat to their luxury cars or use other means to avoid the worst pollution. "But that is after all a minority," and even they "have a hard time" avoiding the smog completely.

3. It raises citizen awareness. 

Here it gets a bit earnest. The article insists that "with the whole world playing up the Chinese miracle," the pollution "reminds us that China’s status as ‘the world’s factory’ is not without a price." 

4. Chinese people are funnier when they are contending with deadly smog. 

The article lists a number of popular smog-related wisecracks. The best example from a meager crop: "We’re never farther away than when we hold hands on the street — and I can’t see you."

5. The haze makes Chinese people more knowledgeable. 

The article concludes that "through the arguments and the jokes" surrounding China’s pollution, "our knowledge of meteorology, geography, physics, chemistry, and history has progressed." Also, students of English have added terms like "haze" and "smog" to their lexicon.

Whatever the article’s intent — to assuage readers, or to make them laugh — it seems to have backfired. Thousands of users on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, have derided the effort, with the account for Chutian Metropolis Daily, a small newspaper based in the industrial city of Wuhan, writing, "Only someone poisoned by the smog would be stupid enough to say something like this." Keen to the surrounding ridicule, most major outlets that carried the story seem to have removed it: The ill-fated feature could not be found on the front page of the CCTV site, while the website for state-run service Xinhua appears to have deleted the essay. Both have belatedly discovered that Chinese people prefer their government focus on reducing pollution, and leave the smog-related gallows humor to its citizens.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. Twitter: @dwertime

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