Air pollution policy making and social media in Beijing, 2011-2013

This article is by Johan van de Ven, whose undergraduate dissertation at Oxford University examined the effects of factors such as environmental movements, diplomacy and social media on air pollution policy-making in China.

In a study conducted from June to December 2013, I quantitatively and qualitatively examined a variety of social media and mainstream media articles related to air pollution  and compared the results with government statements and policy making events, with the aim of answering the question: Was social media primarily responsible for government action on air pollution in China?

The results of a image search for 雾霾 (wumai), the Chinese characters for smog.
The results of a image search for 雾霾 (wumai), the Chinese characters for smog.

Surrounded on three sides by mountains and in close proximity to a large number of coal-fired power plants, Beijing has been afflicted by serious air pollution for many years. This pollution is exacerbated by the rapidly increasing number of cars in the Chinese capital, but only since 2011 has the noxious air been a topic of day-to-day online and offline conversation in Beijing. 2011 was also the year that the government began providing more accurate and comprehensive data on the problem, and announced measures to reduce air pollution in the capital. One word has been critical in this drive: PM2.5.

PM2.5 is now a household term in China. But as recently as January 2011 this was not the case. It was only on January 13 2011 that Baidu Index, a service that tracks Internet activity on given search terms, began to return results for “PM2.5” (data available here, requires registration). PM2.5 is particulate matter of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, and is emitted by all types of combustive activities (see for more information). It is particularly dangerous because PM2.5 particles can lodge deeper inside the lungs than most pollutants and because it typically contains materials of high toxicity.

This chart displays the results of the Baidu Index for “PM2.5” for 2014 (both its use an Internet search term and its appearance in news articles), compared with mentions of “PM2.5” on Sina Weibo:


World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines indicate that a safe limit for PM2.5 exposure is 10 micrograms per cubic meter on an annual average basis, and 25 micrograms per cubic meter on a 24-hour average basis. According to data obtained from the United States embassy, which has monitored PM2.5 levels in Beijing and published them on Twitter since 2008, the average concentration of PM2.5 at the embassy compound in eastern Beijing between February 17 2009 and April 5 2013 was 90.45 micrograms per cubic meter, over three times more than WHO 24-hour exposure guidelines. Furthermore, concentrations reached over 700 micrograms per cubic meter on at least one day in every year since monitoring commenced.

Between 2011 and 2013 there have been a number of key advances in how both national and local environmental protection authorities deal with air pollution. On December 22 2011, following an autumn of heavy pollution in the capital, Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian 周生贤 announced that a national PM2.5 monitoring network would be in place by 2015, with initial implementation beginning in Beijing on January 21 2012. Following an early June 2012 spat between the US State Department and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Relations, who saw the American embassy’s Twitter feed as an affront, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau began publishing data recorded at 20 monitoring stations across the city on September 28 2012.

A tide of rhetoric promising to bring further improvements came in early 2013 after pollution reached extreme levels in the January 2013 “airpocalypse.” Reuters reported:

January 15 — Days after choking smog blanketed China’s capital, the country’s premier-designate added his voice to appeals to curb the toxic haze, but he offered few specifics and said there was no quick fix.

The comments from Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is expected to take over as premier at a national congress in March, marked the first time a member of the ruling Communist Party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee has addressed the pollution levels that reached record levels during the weekend.

Conditions had eased somewhat by Tuesday, but the hazardous air sparked angry comments from some of Beijing’s 20 million residents and enlivened a usually compliant state media to criticize government inaction.

“There has been a long-term buildup to this problem, and the resolution will require a long-term process. But we must act,” state radio cited Li as saying on Tuesday, three days after the pollution measures soared past previous records.

Beyond piecemeal contingency measures, real reforms did not actually materialize, but the publication by Beijing authorities of an official air quality monitoring app on January 25th joined with the words of political figures such as Li to bring some relief to public concern.

The question is, what motivated both national and local environmental pollution authorities to take steps to address the issue of air pollution in Beijing?

The results of a image search for 雾霾 (wumai), the Chinese characters for smog.
The results of a image search for 雾霾 (wumai), the Chinese characters for smog.

NGOs and citizen activism
Over the last two decades, a variety of environmental organizations have emerged in China. Both local and international, many of these groups have focused their efforts on bringing about change by galvanizing public opinion in the hope that this will force the government to take action. Some groups have attempted to achieve this through citizen participation. One such project is Green Beagle 达尔文自然求知社, which launched a citizen monitoring campaign whereby the organization loaned out a portable PM2.5 monitor to local residents so that they could develop a more accurate perception of the air they were breathing. Green Beagle also maintains Nature University, a side project providing resources and training to inspire so-called “citizen journalists.”

The FLOAT Project uses retrofitted versions of traditional kites to monitor air quality, attaching pollution monitoring devices and colored lights to the kites so that they would serve as a visual indication of the basic state of the air in which they were being flown. The air monitoring kits were distributed online and through workshops which also focus on design and pollution awareness.

Greenpeace launched a citizen monitoring campaign, which is similar to that of Green Beagle. Greenpeace has also expended significant effort in public education and Internet-based campaigns, such as its portal on PM2.5 awareness. China Dialogue, a bilingual website focusing on environmental affairs, has facilitated and publicized debate and commentary on pollution-related issues by publishing articles simultaneously in English and Chinese by specialists and journalists from China and the rest of the world.

But these groups have not been successful in building widespread public environmental awareness in China. Efforts at citizen monitoring have been hampered by the fact that both Green Beagle and Greenpeace only have one portable PM2.5 monitoring unit to loan out, while the struggles of all these groups to build a presence in Chinese-language mainstream and social media is also indicative of their failure. One key illustration of this is that Greenpeace’s attempt to build a viral campaign on Weibo using the hashtag #好空气不要等 (I can’t wait for good air) was used only 364 times as of December 18 2013 .

The US Embassy and the power of diplomacy
It was a combination of diplomatic and celebrity activism which was most influential in the reforms made since 2011. Efforts by Beijing diplomatic missions to obtain better air pollution information began in 2008, when the United States embassy in Beijing began monitoring PM2.5 concentrations. Since then, the embassy’s Twitter feed, @Beijingair, formed the most prominent part of the public diplomacy drive, the implicit aim of which was to galvanize Chinese public opinion and thus influence the decision-making of the Chinese government. This has been accompanied by periodic spats between the US State Department and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While NGOs were not successful in influencing public opinion, the disputes demonstrate that @Beijingair achieved the basic success of forcing MEP officials to continue paying attention to this issue. It was also successful in directing public opinion on the issue, with the Global Times 环球时报, a newspaper that frequently rails against US interference in China’s internal affairs, printing an editorial noting the effect that the Twitter feed had had on residents’ perception of air quality.

But US public diplomacy also enjoyed greater success than the environmental NGOs because it formed part of a two-pronged approach, the other half being discrete engagement between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Ministry of Environment Protection, as well as between the EPA and the National Development and Reform Commission. While there is limited public evidence for the effectiveness of the cooperation, the fact that it has continued to the present since at least 2005 is indicative of basic success. The embassy Twitter feed was important for stirring up popular opinion and directly pressuring MEP officials, but it is the continuation of existing ministerial cooperation that is critical to ensuring future development of air quality management in China. However, while diplomatic missions were vital in pressuring national-level air pollution authorities to act, the reforms made in Beijing hinged on the local Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau. In terms of influencing local officials and galvanizing the local public, missions such as the US embassy played a distinctly secondary role.

Note: In April 2014 the US State Department published a large set of data from the US Embassy’s readings of PM2.5 in Beijing. Visualizations of the data can be seen here and here.

The Big Vs and the influence of social media
It was a group of celebrity Weibo users which was most successful in pressuring local officials and in coalescing the local populace in the drive for reforms to air pollution policy. Known as Big Vs, figures such as real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi 潘石屹, the children’s author Zheng Yuanjie 郑渊洁, and the angel investor Xue Manzi 薛蛮子 from 2011 to 2013 regularly reposted data from the @Beijingair Twitter feed (theoretically inaccessible in China after the blocking of Twitter in 2009) and also published online polls and essays. Zheng was the first to use a poll on environmental issues, asking his followers in November 2011 what they thought of air quality in Beijing. 6,993 participated, far in excess of the 364 who took part in Greenpeace’s attempted viral campaign. Moreover, 89% of respondents to Zheng’s poll voted for the option that “Beijing air quality is getting increasingly bad.”

This marked the start of a campaign that was to continue through January 2013, when it reached its apogee: on January 29, Pan Shiyi published a poll asking whether the government should establish a clean air act. Over 55,000 people took part, with 99% of them voting “yes.” The scale of this activity indicates that the Big Vs oversaw a genuine “blooming discourse”, like that which Yang and Calhoun imagined for China’s green sphere. Over the following weeks, public pressure remained high on the government to act. As detailed earlier, the response revolved around piecemeal measures such as factory slowdowns. While a clean air act has yet to come to the table at the National People’s Congress, such legislation has been discussed at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress. This shows that Weibo Big Vs successfully directed popular opinion on the issue of PM2.5 pollution between the years 2011-2013.

The influence they accrued is underlined by the measures that have since been taken against them, which also fall within the context of an ongoing campaign to crack down on Weibo celebrities and “public opinion leaders”. Xue Manzi is now in prison after being arrested on charges of soliciting prostitutes, before then being shown on CCTV’s prime time news program confessing to the abuse of his position as a Big V. Pan Shiyi was subjected to an interview on Chinese Central Television in which he was made to state concerns regarding irresponsible social media usage. The very fact that the government considered men such as Pan and Xue to be a threat indicates how much they succeeded in influencing popular opinion.

But ultimately, despite the effectiveness of different aspects of Big V campaigning and public diplomacy in influencing public opinion, the policymaking power of the central government is largely invulnerable to the weight of public opinion. Concessions are made, but far-reaching responses are absent. Just as Pan Shiyi only began campaigning for air quality improvement after his wife developed a cough, so the leaders in Zhongnanhai will likely prove correct William Alford et al, who found in their study of Anqing in Anhui Province that people became concerned about coal pollution when they or their family developed health problems. Only when the Chinese leadership or their families develop air pollution-related health conditions will a Clean Air Act for China have real probability.

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