On a recent Sunday morning, I pulled back the curtains to peek outside and assess the air quality. “Great, just great,” I mumbled in defeat as I chalked up another weekend day lost to what we call “soupy skies” in our home. Even my 3-year-old is attuned to how the pollution in Beijing affects me. I can’t help it; enjoying the outdoors is part of my DNA. “Oh yuck,” my son says as he sees my shoulders slump. “It’s not a great day, huh Mom?” “We’ll make it one buddy,” I tell him.
I loaded my two boys into the double stroller to brave the 15-minute walk to an indoor play area. Walking out of our apartment building, I noticed it right away. Severe pollution looks like dirty fog and has its own scent; like hair burning. Within minutes, my eyes were slightly irritated with a subtle burning sensation. The boys didn’t seem to notice—no eye rubbing or coughing—so I pressed on.
This is not a story about polluted air in Beijing (at least not this week). This is a story about polluted information. But like many a sensitive topic here, ever the two shall meet, and in this case they do.
As I walked with my boys, marveling at how surely this must be one of the worst days we had encountered in some time, I pulled out my iPhone to call up a new app. “CN Air Quality” delivers two pieces of information: the Air Quality Index (AQI) as recorded by the US Embassy in Beijing, and the same number as reported by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). This in and of itself was a small triumph; many apps are banned in China. Some are obvious, such as the app “Dalai Lama Quotes.” But some are not. I had tried to download a few other air quality apps without success for whatever reason; slow downloading times or government restrictions. So I was eager to use my new app for the first time.
The AQI reading by the US Embassy almost made me turn back. Before I reveal it, keep in mind that in Bakersfield, California—the most polluted city in America—the AQI has for the last few days been around 65. Anything between 51 to 100 is considered “moderate.” That day, the AQI reading by the US Embassy in Beijing was 276. Anything between 201 and 300 is considered “very unhealthy.” There is only one worse rating, 301+, which is considered “hazardous.”
A future blog post will address pollution as an individual topic. For this entry’s purpose, I will share with you the AQI as recorded by China’s MEP on the same day the US Embassy said it was 276: 112. On the US scale, a 112 is rated as “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Surely a child under the age of 5 is in a sensitive group, no? I did double time on the double stroller and got my sons indoors.
But I couldn’t shake the discrepancy. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. And then I realized something rather humbling. True, I had access to the US AQI, which I take to be the correct number. But the fact the Chinese AQI was so outrageously out of whack annoyed me, probably because I connected it to my children. But when it came right down to it, I was simply experiencing what millions of Chinese experience everyday: censorship. I did not have to be calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to feel it; I just had to take a walk outside on “not a great day,” as my son would say.
The very next day in Beijing, Wu Xiaoqing, a vice environmental minister, called on foreign embassies to stop publishing their own AQI findings. He said only China is authorized to monitor and publish air quality information. What I found amusing is that Wu employed a common Chinese tactic in his remarks to press; he warned that “other” entities may not be as strict or as rigorous in assessing air quality. Why then, if so rigorous, is the AQI rating by the MEP consistently lower than all others? Does all that rigor clear the air?
I am still new to China. Coming here, one accepts the realities of living under censorship. As the Chen Guangcheng story unfolded, a parlor game of sorts took place on Twitter—itself accessible only to those who went through the trouble of establishing a virtual private network for their Web access—chronicling how fast the government blocked words or phrases such as “Shawshank Redemption,” the title of the movie about a prison escape, or “UA898,” the United Airlines direct flight from Beijing to New York.
Of course, trying to cover Tibet is to experience censorship every day. But those stories are not personal, for professional and for practical reasons.
Pollution is. If I send my son to a local Chinese school, the teachers will decide when and if he plays outside based on the Chinese assessment of air quality. Already, at international schools, parents are asked to inform the school at what AQI level they would not like their child to play outside. And so while on the surface the discrepancy does not impact me directly, it very well could, very soon.
I return to Wu Xiaoqing’s claim that only China is authorized to monitor and publish air quality information. As a smarting mother of two, my reaction was, “What, are they in charge of the air we breathe too?” The government’s answer is, yes, in fact we are.