In the summer of 2009, China's Foreign Ministry made a demand of the U.S. embassy: Stop making measurements of air pollution in Beijing available to ordinary Chinese since they conflicted with official data and could lead to "confusion" among the public and undesirable "social consequences."
The Americans refused to comply. For the past 2½ years, they've continued to announce hourly their findings of the air quality over the embassy, which is in a "not that polluted" area of the capital, and to put them on an embassy-managed Twitter site.
The trouble is, while the Americans were measuring – and disclosing – the concentration of "fine" particulate smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) – which pose the greatest risk to human health – the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau's air pollution index reflected only the concentration of the much larger PM10 particles. This resulted in the embassy's characterizing the air quality as "unhealthy" or "very unhealthy," while Beijing reported a "blue sky day" with "good" air quality.
The Chinese government's primary concern was that it should not lose face before its people, that Chinese citizens not be given information that could be used to question the validity of the government's data.
The embassy reported on this conversation in a cable to the State Department. The cable, among the thousands made public by WikiLeaks, makes clear that, in the view of China's Foreign Ministry, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau should be "the sole authoritative voice for making pronouncements on Beijing's air quality." It was as though providing information to the Chinese public on the quality of the air they were breathing was somehow interference in China's internal affairs.
Well, China was right about one thing. After the public found out they had been fed misleading information that affected their health, they were confused by the conflicting information available, questioned the official data and launched a social movement, insisting that more complete information be made available.
That movement has led to success. In November, the China Daily reported that the Ministry of Environmental Protection would solicit public opinion on revised air quality standards, "following widespread calls for the government to provide more information on pollution."
In December, The Wall Street Journal ran an article under the headline, Victory for U.S. Embassy as Beijing Chokes on 'Heavy Fog.' It reported a "fundamental shift" in the willingness of Chinese city dwellers to accept the government's definition of fog at face value and said the U.S. embassy has been "instrumental in piercing the veil around air quality in China's capital."
Last Friday, the official Xinhua news agency reported that Beijing would "start releasing data about the amount of tiny particulate matter that is detected in the air" before the lunar New Year, which is on Jan. 23. The Environmental Protection Bureau had this information all along.
Some other Chinese cities have also said they will start publishing information about PM2.5 readings this year, including Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao, Dalian and Chongqing. By 2016, such information should be available for the whole country.
This is a huge victory not just for the U.S. embassy but for the Chinese people – a victory for openness, for transparency, for access to information and, most important, for public accountability over bureaucracy, for putting the health of the people over the face of government officials.
It's natural for people to want information that affects their well-being. They will want that from any source, foreign or local. Of course, it would best if the Chinese government should supply this information rather than try to suppress it.
In principle, the more information that can be made available, the better. And a government that allows a free flow of information is a government that demonstrates confidence.
Actually, even if the U.S. embassy had been cowed into submission, the relevant information would certainly have reached the Chinese public sooner or later. You can't fool all the people all the time.
This development may well have a bearing on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's current campaign to prevent members of the Hong Kong public from talking to officials of the U.S. consulate there. China has nothing to fear from such contact. If anything, the more contact there is between the public and foreign diplomats, the better – since that's one way of ensuring that foreign countries will have a better understanding of how Chinese people think and feel.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.