On January 1, 2014, the Chinese central government launched new regulation that requires 15,000 factories to individually publish data on their air emissions and water discharges in real time. While altogether a positive development, the announcement marks a clever shift in how the Chinese government now approaches environmental issues.
Pressure has been mounting on officials to alleviate what’s been painted as a crisis in domestic and foreign media. Nowhere else in the world does scientific jargon like PM 2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 nanometers) garner as much public scrutiny and emotional hyperbole than in China. China’s environmental problems have become a trope in foreign media (sometimes to a fault), a constantly trending topic on Weibo, and has spawned a host of semi-serious discussions on wacky solutions to China‘s pollutant problem.
The new data disclosures seems to be a win for environmental nonprofits who for months have been lobbying government officials for individual disclosures of emission data now, galvanizing hopes for proponents of China’s historically weak civil society. Ma Jun, an instrumental Beijing environmentalist instrumental, admitted to being amazed that the government even listened to his proposals for a blue sky roadmap. Combined with recent environmental legislation in Beijing, the disclosures are a huge step forward towards combatting pollution.
Yet while the government’s actions are laudable, its motives may not be so simple. On the surface, publishing emission data seems like a double-win for both environmentalists and advocates of greater government transparency. In this case however, transparency may actually be helping China’s central government deflect blame away from itself.
By publishing data from individual factories (including state-owned enterprises), China’s government have shifted the conversation away from the failure of its policymakers to address serious health and safety concerns stemming from environmental issues. Instead, the attention is now focused on the polluters themselves, rather than on the government that could not reign them in. Ma is currently working with partners on a smartphone app that will allow users to see factories that violate national regulations capping emissions in real time. It is undeniably an effective, grassroots tool to curb emissions. It also happens to frame the polluters as the guilty party and makes the Chinese government look like the good guys by enabling them to enforce previously unenforced legislation.
In fact, collecting and publishing emissions data has been going on since 2012, when municipalities and provincial capitals were required to monitor PM2.5 levels. An immensely popular smartphone app has been publishing live data since 2008 on PM2.5 concentration collected from a satellite located on top of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
But data that treats cities and municipalities as units for measurement obscures individual-level non-state actors from the causal picture. Instead, frustrated citizens tend to blame city governments for being unable to provide basic necessities like clean food, water, and air. Chinese officials are under enormous pressure to mollify public outrage, and their desperation is starting to show. Beijing mayor Wang Anshun has said he would be willing to invest a trillion yuan in order to resolve the city’s pollution problems. Hebei province’s governor Zhang Qingwei has even gone as far as saying he would fire any official who increased the area’s steel-manufacturing capacity, which has been blamed as a prime contributor to air pollution. Diverting responsibility to smaller companies and factories is part and parcel of a public image campaign to save the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Because unfortunately for China’s risk-averse government, environmentalism has been a surprisingly effective avenue for activism and civil society advocacy. Acute concern over air, water, and food pollution has the remarkable ability to unify individuals of all socioeconomic and mobilize the otherwise apathetic. Anyone who lives, breaths, and eats is affected by pollution that has resulted in 750,000 premature deaths each year. Among Chinese officials, middle class professionals, and rural citizens alike has been an upsurge in concern about food and water safety. As a result, we have seen a rise in environmental activism in the last year, growing interest in organic foods, increased interest in rural living, and back-to-the-earth movements. Combined with the media frenzy about Beijing’s airpocalypse in winter of 2013, the discovery of thousands of dead pigs floating down Shanghai’s Huangpu river last May, and numerous tainted or faux food scandals, China’s pollution problem round out a laundry list of grievances that has severely diminished faith in China’s Communist Party. Environmental movements have been regarded with particular suspicion ever since Taiwan’s first meaningful opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, began as a pro-environmental movement.
The smog that blankets cities like Beijing, Harbin, and Shanghai is a visceral, a visual reminder of the price of breakneck industrial and economic development. The latter, economic development, has long been a justification for restraining civil liberties and rampant inequality. China’s environmental pollution deals another blow to the weakening legitimacy of the CCP. Perhaps that’s why the CCP has been receptive towards environmental non-profits and NGOs. But before members of China’s society celebrate too soon, we should remember the ongoing story of Xu Zhiyong. A Beijing lawyer who successfully petitioned the government to end labor reeducation camps, Xu nonetheless ran out of luck and was recently sentenced to four years in jail for his leadership in the New Citizens Movement. Fortune can be fickle.
All this isn’t to say that we should write-off the data disclosures of individual factories. The willingness to include state-owned enterprises among the 15,000 being monitored demonstrates a commitment to transparency rarely seen in the Middle Kingdom. The data gives ordinary citizens a stake in tracking industrial activity. Most importantly, it gives them a way to voice dissent at the very real ways pollution is affecting millions of lives.
However, we do need to be wary of letting the Chinese government off the hook too easily, too soon. Achieving adequate environmental protections and steps towards cleaner industry will take continued effort and political will beyond just releasing data. Factories may be the ones physically emitting pollutants, but we shouldn’t forget who actively encouraged them to do so in the first place.
Originally published on Duke East Asia Nexus