This week’s episode on the US-China squabble channel is about pollution. The American embassy in Beijing has been tweeting hourly pollution levels from a device installed on its roof for about three years, something the Chinese have never been comfortable with. This week the Chinese officially demanded that foreign embassies cease broadcasting independent assessments of Beijing’s air quality.
China does have a legitimate point to make here: poorer countries are in different stages of development and therefore cannot afford the same environmental standards as wealthier nations. China operates its own air quality measurement system in Beijing that detects particles 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller, whereas the $20,000 device atop the American embassy measures the smaller and more dangerous particles.
Not having a team of international lawyers on 24 hour call, Via Meadia doesn’t know whether the US embassy has the legal right to publish data alongside official Chinese readings. But demanding that somebody stop telling the truth about you is never a strong negotiating position to take. China does not gain much by making a big issue of this.
On my trips to Beijing, I’ve often noticed a hazy, thick fog that makes it impossible to see nearby buildings. The government would call this normal meteorological fog; few in Beijing, Chinese or foreign, ever bought that assessment.
New developments may soon make the embassy argument obsolete. Back home, the US government is sponsoring a competition to design and make a “personal air pollution monitor” that will be cheap enough for individuals to measure air quality on their own. As that technology spreads, not even China will be able to turn the air people breathe into a state secret.
China’s real problem is that many of its citizens no longer trust what their government tells them. The way to change that isn’t by attacking foreign embassies who broadcast embarrassing data that the Communist Party wants to keep quiet.