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Chinese Pollution Leads to Rare Criticism in State Media

China air pollution h

As air pollution levels in Beijing hit 40 times the World Health Organization's limit, state-backed media organizations openly challenge government policies.

Exceptionally bad air quality in Beijing -- even by Chinese standards -- has led to rare and aggressive criticism of the government by the country’s state-backed media.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that as air pollution readings hit dangerous levels in much of northern China over the weekend, expats and users of Chinese social media began calling the visibly noxious smog the “airpocalypse.”

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According to various reports, visibility plummeted to 100 meters in some areas of Beijing and measurements of lung-penetrating particulate matter hit nearly 40 times the World Health Organization's safety limit. In response, the Chinese government issued a first-ever “Orange Fog Warning” and was forced to cancel some flights in and out of the capital. It also suspended or reduced operations at scores of heavy-polluting factories and ordered government officials to reduce vehicle use, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Nearly unprecedented was the resolutely critical response of government-backed media organizations, said the Journal.

State broadcaster China Central Television led its primetime Sunday evening and mid-Monday broadcasts with in-depth coverage and analysis of the air pollution problem.

“Everyone is the victim of polluted air, and everyone is capable of reducing the smoggy air,” said CCTV in one segment. “Environment protection policies should be strengthened. Governmental departments should take the lead and drive official cars less frequently.”

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The Communist Party’s official newspaper and mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, likewise ran a bold editorial on its front page Monday morning, with the headline: “A Beautiful China Starts with Healthy Breathing.”

“The vast, unmoving haze has obscured our vision, but it has made the urgency of pollution control clearer to us,” the editorial stated.

Beijing authorities have long downplayed China’s environmental problems in state-backed media. In June, the government ordered all foreign embassies in China to stop monitoring and reporting air quality readings from the roofs of their buildings. The United States embassy in Beijing has tweeted hourly air quality reports from its premises since 2008 -- readings that China has often suggested are slanderously inaccurate. The U.S. embassy refused to follow Beijing’s injunction, and the issue has occasionally featured as a diplomatic sore spot of sorts. 

But now it seems Beijing’s air problem has simply gotten too bad for local media to ignore. As the Journal reported, even the usually nationalistic tabloid Global Times joined the chorus of criticism of the government’s approach to the pollution problem, calling it “crazy fog.”

“In the past, the government handled some pollution-related information in a ‘low-key’ manner. It made the choice between environmental protection and development on behalf of the people. The public doesn’t buy this line of reasoning and it has led to certain conflicts,” wrote the Global Times, going on to suggest that the Chinese people were ready to challenge the prioritizing of economic growth over all else.

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“The people should grasp both the importance of economic growth and the urgency of basic environmental protection,” the Global Times went on. “This difficult choice should be decided in a genuinely democratic manner.”

The government’s liberal approach to the coverage of the air pollution problem comes as something of a surprise after the protests and debate earlier this year over the censorship of the reform-minded magazine, Southern Weekend, earlier this month. After an editorial calling for political reform was replaced by censors with a pro-government propaganda piece, the magazine’s editorial staff took to the streets in protest, earning encouragement from a bevy of high-profile Chinese actors and social media impresarios. Several of the stars who voiced support for the magazine later had their social media accounts censored and were called in for closed-door meetings with party authorities. The episode was widely viewed as a rebuke, or step back from, the stated priorities of allowing greater press freedom under the country’s new leader, General Secretary Xi Jinping.