Calibrating China’s diplomatic atmosphere

We know the Chinese have their own views on life and politics. We know the Americans have their own take on politics and life. We also know they clash repeatedly. But this news struck me as ridiculous!

Smog at the Forbidden City Beijing

Smog envelopes the Forbidden City

A Chinese environmental minister was recently reported as warning foreign embassies based in that country to stop publication of their own, independent reports of the air quality in Chinese cities.

It seems the authorities are fed up with the Americans in particular; in Beijing, the US Embassy run a Twitter feed with almost 20,000 followers, posting hourly reports on the notoriously bad air quality in the capital.[1] Since 2011, they have initiated the same service (?) in Guangzhou and Shanghai.[2]

Clearing the air, or muddying the waters?

The Chinese seem to object on multiple grounds: the Americans are observing a different, more stringent rating of pollution levels compared to the official Chinese system; only the Chinese are officially allowed to publish such data, they claim, as only they are responsible for matters “related to public interests”; the embassy readings are based only on single tracking stations, situated (reasonably enough) on the buildings of the US Embassy in those 3 cities. Finally, the Chinese accuse the Americans of breaching the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as well as aspects of Chinese environmental law (unspecified).

Twitter has been banned in China since 2009, so local followers of any nationality are apparently getting their feed via third-party mobile apps. In response to an online campaign complaining that the Chinese authorities were not releasing their own data publicly, they have recently begun to publish partial information, which was previously restricted “for research purposes”. So much for “public interest”.

What’s so funny?

Why do I find this situation amusing and ridiculous – and simultaneously sad?

Because, if the air quality is bad, that’s the root of the problem – for both the government and – dare I say it? – the general population. Publishing allegedly massaged, admittedly less precise figures doesn’t magically improve the weather or one’s perception of the quality of the air one is trying to breathe. Why is it that responsible governments world-wide are trying (at significant cost) to improve the air we all breathe and share?

I’ve worked in both Beijing and Guangzhou, and the photo above is, sadly, typical. The fact that pollution might be at Level 1 according to one source and Level 6 on another scale is, in the end, academically incidental. All I’d really want to know is: will today be fine, clear – and healthy? Or will it be brown-skied, heavy, thick, and difficult to breathe? I know smog when I see it!

But, then,it’s necessary to remind oneself that niceties of protocol and diplomacy are not necessarily even remotely concerned with the welfare of citizens and the environmental poisons they have to inhale as they scurry about their business adding to GDP.

Update

The US State Department has responded by stating they have no intention of abandoning the service, which they claim is primarily directed at ex-pats.[3] Moreover, they have no objections if Chinese embassies want to start monitoring air quality in the US capital and reporting the results. Ouch!

By the way…

If this is the worst example the Chinese can find of “interference” by certain foreign embassies, they should come to Bulgaria on a study visit! When is “that man” due to leave Sofia?

[1]: The Independent

[2]: The Wall Street Journal

[3]} Bangkok Post

Image source: http://traveltree.wordpress.com/

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One Response to “Calibrating China’s diplomatic atmosphere”

  1. philinsofia Says:

    Here’s another topical story:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/mysterious-mist-engulfs-chinese-city-of-wuhan-7848110.html

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