Can China Censor the Weather?

Goopy smog may have smothered Beijing this week, but optimism among foreigners is shining a bright light across China.

A temperature inversion resulted in, literally, off-the-charts pollution in the Chinese capital, and the country’s leaders quickly reacted to universal criticism of their decades-old environment-be-damned policies. “Chinese media is all over the story in a remarkably transparent contrast to today’s haze in Beijing,” said Bill Bishop to the New York Times.

The new narrative is that the state is showing an unprecedented commitment to openness. The storyline is all the more remarkable because it comes in the wake of the unveiling of the Communist Party’s new Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China. In November at the 18thCongress, the world learned that the so-called “conservatives”—hard-line anti-reformers—had grabbed as many as four and perhaps six seats on the seven-member body. China watchers, at the time, groaned.

But when it comes to the magnificent Chinese state, it’s hard to keep the optimists down. “Clearly it is impossible to pretend that the air is not polluted or that the health risks are not significant, so are the propaganda authorities just recognizing reality in allowing coverage?” Bishop, a noted China watcher, asked. “Or is there something more going on here, as perhaps the new government wants to both demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability as well as use this crisis to further the difficult reforms toward a more sustainable development model?”

It would be comforting to believe that the party, after a decade of steadily increasing repression and a recent wrong turn at the 18th Congress, has truly embraced a new governing paradigm and, to boot, decided to abandon its outmoded top-down development model.

But we have to remember that in China there are patterns and that we have heard all this before. Immediately after the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008—70,000 dead and 18,000 missing—there was a similar period of openness.

Then, as now, foreigners praised the state. “There was a new openness in the way the response to this disaster was handled,” Javier Solana, then the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, said in January of the following year. Said Song Zhe, China’s ambassador to the EU at the time, “There were timely and accurate news releases, objective and free reports, open and transparent supervision, which presented credibility and responsibility.”

That didn’t last. By the first anniversary of the tragedy, the party had gone back to its old way of doing things. There was no promised inquiry into who was responsible for the collapse of schools, parents of victims were thrown into “black jails,” authorities locked down the affected area, journalists were harassed and detained.

Now, People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s self-described “mouthpiece,” is talking about how the party has been leading the struggle to clean up the air. “The seemingly never-ending haze and fog may blur our vision,” the paper said  “but they make us see extra clearly the urgency of pollution control and to make us extra vividly understand the necessity of the theory of building an ecological civilization, put forward at the 18thParty Congress.”

The party, as we can see, is more interested in taking credit— and avoiding blame—than in cleaning the air. And once it has regained its footing and the winds have blown away the Beijing smog, the party will attempt to reassert control over a society that, for a brief moment, could say what it wanted about the weather.

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