Frustrated by choking air pollution, some attempt to hold government to account

By Huang Jingjing and Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/1/9 19:23:39

As smog alerts hit swathes of China this winter, many people's attitudes have turned from jokes to anger 

Some have started voicing their concerns by demanding a better government response, or thinking of ways to protect their family

Even though there are still many who are ignorant of this issue, there are hopes this may lead to change in the future

indergartners sit in a classroom complete with a ventilation system on a smoggy day in Shanghai. Photo:IC

Kindergartners sit in a classroom complete with a ventilation system on a smoggy day in Shanghai. Photo:IC

Artists dressed up as a couple pretend to get married while wearing masks in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in 2014 to show their concerns about air pollution.Photo:IC

Artists dressed up as a couple pretend to get married while wearing masks in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in 2014 to show their concerns about air pollution.Photo:IC

After being hit by a quick combo of two heavy pollution alerts, Jin Zi was on the ropes. The Beijing investment consultant felt sick of being enveloped in thick smog, both physically and mentally.

"My 70-year-old mother got sick after coming to Beijing from Qingdao, Shandong Province. My twins cough even though they are just 9 months old. My heart feels sore every time I hear them cough," he said.

So he chose Sina Weibo as the arena to vent his anger. On Thursday evening, he made a public complaint on his verified Weibo account, demanding the State Council give citizens a formal response the government's failure to rein in the choking smog.

 "I believe what's frightening is not the smog, but your indifference," he said, demanding the government offer concrete and comprehensive solutions to the problem. 

The post quickly circulated on Chinese social media and generated one million views before it was deleted the next morning. After cutting out a few of his more radical remarks, he posted it again.

To his joy, the Weibo administrators didn't remove the post this time. But he never received an official response.

Over the last few months, the oceans of smog flooding over many provinces have again led to the public raising their voices over the toxic clouds. From jokes, sarcasm and laments before to actions and angry demands today, the people's frustrations have once again bubbled to the surface.

Pressure on government

On December 20, five lawyers from Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province filed lawsuits against the regional governments for failing to combat pollution crisis in the region.

In the joint indictment, they demanded the governments be punished and solve the air pollution within a set time frame, and asked for compensation, including 9,999 yuan ($1,438) for suffering and to cover the costs of their face masks.

Tianjin lawyer Ma Wei said that he has received no judicial reply but has gotten calls from the police and the justice bureau.

"They asked me to withdraw the complaint. I refused. I told them I'm not fighting for my own right to fresh air, but for you, for everybody," Ma said.

According to the law, the court should decide whether to docket the complaint or clarify why is hasn't done so within seven days. But it's been 18 days since the Tianjin court acknowledged Ma's filing.

"They didn't reply, which is against the law," Ma said. "My purpose is not to embarrass the government, but to push them to act."

On December 30, Beijing's Cheng Hai went to the No.4 Intermediate People's Court of Beijing and inquired about the progress of his case. Court workers told him that they could not accept it as the defendants were several governments.

Cheng said that after changing the filing to only include the Beijing government, he submitted it again. After seven days, he has still heard nothing. "I will continue to appeal," he pledged.

If the court doesn't respond to the complaint, Cheng may file a complaint at a higher court.

Awareness and discussion

These demands for better governance stem from an evolution in the public attitude toward pollution, from jokes and helplessness in the first years toward greater anger and criticism, especially during the past month when two periods of blinding smog made winter in North China even bleaker than usual.

Gradually, many started realizing smog isn't a joke, that the harm it causes is real.

A netizen said at first she thought the jokes were funny. "Photos of an old lady walking her dog, in which it turns out she was holding an empty leash, circulated online and I thought they were hilarious."

But soon, the joke was on her. She saw a former classmate, who now studies in Australia, taunting people who have no choice but to stay behind in the smog, and she felt uncomfortable.

"At least I'm trying to make changes," the netizen, who works in environmental protection, said. "All they've done is hide outside, and they feel morally superior?"

Many also started sharing articles on harm the smog may bring, as well as how to protect themselves.

In the past couple of months, a few events have erupted at the same time. Besides those demanding information on pollution, there were some attempting to educate others on the harm of the smog, attempting to give their fellow citizens a wake-up call.

Shen Kui, a law school professor at Peking University, filed an application to the national energy bureau and environmental protection authorities, asking for information on petroleum coke power plants and their connection to smog.

He read a post that has been circulating online and causing panic for days, claiming that these plants generate more pollution than coal-fired ones. Shen looked up the Peking University database and found a notice from the government last December that limits the development of such projects without explaining why.

Putting two and two together, Shen grew worried. However, he couldn't find more information, so he filed for an information disclosure request.

"There's no public channel to get the information I want to know," he told Caixin magazine.

Many are demanding better protection from the smog as well. A mother wrote a long open letter demanding Beijing schools install air filtration systems for the children. 

Not enough?

Ignorance towards pollution still exists. From Internet discussions and news reports, it's easy to see people walking around without masks on in swampy pollution in smaller cities, even smog-shrouded provincial capitals such as Shijiazhuang.

But even a small segment of society demanding a government response and information disclosure is already an improvement.

Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-profit environmental protection organization based in Beijing, is supportive of these people's demands for accountability.

"There are precedents, both globally and domestically," he said, citing demonstrations in Western countries in the 1960s.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the nation's streets, parks, and auditoriums to protest against pollution, which had led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts by the end of that year.

The Chinese government's decision to start releasing PM2.5 data was also completed by public scrutiny, Ma said.

The public discussion of PM 2.5, particles - which can lodge themselves deeper in the lungs than most pollutants and are highly toxic - arose in early 2011 when the US embassy's smog figures were consistently gloomier than the official data.

In November that year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) formulated its air quality standards and added PM 2.5 limits in the regulation.

There's a fine line in China between acceptable displays of anger and protests and crossing a threshold. In Chengdu, Sichuan Province, a group of artists were detained for silently sitting in a square with masks on to protest the smog that had taken hold of the city.

But this time, the government response came rather quickly. Last week, the Beijing government announced that filtration equipment will be installed in all of Beijing's kindergartens and elementary schools to ensure clean air, though it didn't clarify whether they meant individual air purifiers or the larger air ventilation systems that parents demanded.

Over the weekend, the MEP and the National Meteorological Center held a press conference to address the public smog concerns.

The MEP minister Chen Jining on January 6 pledged to remove coal-fired boilers, raise industrial emission standards, punish violators, eliminate heavy polluting vehicles and prohibit bulk coal burning in Beijing and its surrounding areas. 

The best way to combat air pollution is to be transparent, Ma believes. Even though the regulations say that local governments should publicize the biggest polluters in their area and make factories release their emissions data in real time, very few have done so, he added.

There's no going back to the time of making jokes and gently complaining about the smog now, an author wrote in the public account under the title "Why have I not run back to America in the smog."

She wrote that many want to enjoy a good consumer life, a heavily polluting life, but at the same time complain about the environment. Maybe it's time to start making personal changes, starting with each one of us.

"The solution to pollution will not come from complaining and fleeing, nor from government enforcement policies, but from technological advances and education."


Newspaper headline: Smog sufferers speak out


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