○ Sulfur dioxide levels in Linfen, a small city in North China's Shanxi Province went off the charts last month
○ When an expert from the Chinese Academy of Sciences reached out to the local government asking for open information on pollution, she was put off
○ There's a large difference between regions in China concerning transparency
Residents travel on a smoggy day in Langfang, Hebei Province. Photo: CFP
Wang, a resident of Linfen, North China's Shanxi Province, found out online that her hometown's sulfur dioxide (SO2) level has been off the charts for the most of last month. Yet, when she went home for Spring Festival a couple of weeks ago, few people seemed to care. Celebrations went on as usual, fireworks - which release a large quantity of sulfur - were let off by the boxful.
For most of January, the SO2 level in Linfen reached up to 1,303 micrograms per cubic meter, a level 21 times higher than the national standard and 65 times higher than the WHO's recommended density limit.
When she asked her friends and relatives about what precautions they take during periods of hazardous air pollution, they shook their heads and said, "There is nothing we can do, no one can live without breathing."
In Beijing, Shanghai and other larger cities, the public is slowly realizing the harm caused by pollution and the importance of taking precautions. But in smaller cities and towns, the situation remains far from optimistic. Companies and governments choose to hide problems and public awareness around the issue is low.
A tough battle
Li Ting, an expert at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences found one strange event occurring after another since she started investigating SO2 pollution in Linfen.
Her attention was drawn on the matter when she saw a Weibo post by an amateur meteorologist at the beginning of January, saying the SO2 level in the city had risen to 1,152 micrograms per cubic meter.
According to the WHO, breathing in excessive quantities of SO2 burns the eyes and skin; causes tracheitis; may result in the loss of taste and smell; and can even lead to premature death.
Li was horrified. She decided to call the Linfen environmental protection hotline, asking them about the severe pollution. The receptionist simply replied, "We've shut down lots of factories." Li pressed the matter, and the receptionist simply replied he doesn't know anything more and will get back to her the next morning.
After receiving no reply, Li called back again three days later. She was told to call back in a week. When she did, she received no useful information.
"During all these interactions, I felt everybody was friendly and nice, but they never provided anything solid … I felt the arrogance of the whole system, anything you ask went into a black hole," she wrote. "It's the way of many bureaus in China, they never respond after something happens, they drag their feet until the attention disperses."
Meanwhile, the Linfen environmental protection bureau released a report on how the government handled the pollution, saying 192 companies were checked by more than 700 workers, and that just seven pollution issues were found and handled according to law.
However, the government failed to mention what companies were involved, what they illegally emitted and how exactly they were dealt with.
Dishearted by local government disinterest, Li decided to check the data on her own. She went through academic papers from colleges, government bureaus and organizations using her own professional resources, but she couldn't find anything on pollution in Linfen, which says a lot about the city's concern for environmental protection, as well as the openness of information.
"These days, I feel like the environmental data that is released regularly in other cities is encrypted in Linfen," she wrote.
In the end, on January 19, almost three weeks after the SO2 spiked, the Environmental Protection Administration talked to Linfen's mayor and other government officials. Afterwards, a report was released which pointed out a few steel and oil firms were polluting illegally, coal-burning emissions were not restricted, Linfen's government did not release alerts publicly and did not take effective measures to control smog. This was by far the most active and strongest response during the whole matter.
"To China, Linfen is a small place that doesn't feel like it matters. If this happened in Beijing or Shanghai, I'm sure Weibo and WeChat would explode. It's easier to hear the voices of netizens living in first-tier cities, their way of living is easier to spot," she wrote.
A huge difference
Like Li, many NGOs have had unpleasant experiences when dealing with companies and local governments in smaller cities, which have left them dumbfounded.
There are laws and government orders that require pollution information to be publicly displayed. Among them are an order issued in 2007 saying environmental protection bureaus should publicize pollution data and respond to inquiries from individuals, and a 2013 order saying State-run companies should do the same. Clearly, in the case of Linfen, neither of these orders are being followed consistently.
Ruan Qingyuan, director of the information publicity department of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a research organization that collects and analyzes pollution data, said she found in the course of her research there's a large difference between regions in China concerning transparency.
The 2013 order requires State-run enterprises to install pollution surveillance devices and update publicly available pollution data on an hourly basis. But four years later, some provinces, including Shanxi, have not kept up with the order's basic requirements.
In more developed regions, such as East China's Zhejiang Province, State-run companies have already implemented the order to update their data hourly, and moved on to updating provincial and city pollution levels. But in polluted Shanxi, not many companies have taken any steps in this direction.
Lin Hong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a consultant for Beijing-based environmentalist NGO Friends of Nature, said many industrial cities lag way behind in awareness of environmental protection, let alone actual measures to control it.
It's the same with local governments. In 2013, 18 NGOs requested air pollution data from 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities.
When NGO workers sent application letters for pollutant information, some government bureaus and companies called back saying they've never heard of such information releases.
One worker in a remote part of Northeast China's Liaoning Province even received a threatening phone call, telling him to withdraw his application.
Only the strong can take it
This attitude is not just limited to those who might have something to hide. Zhang Yajing went back to her hometown of Shijiazhuang, capital of North China's Hebei Province last December during a period of heavy smog. As soon as she stepped off the train, she was enveloped by pollution. While walking on the streets, she couldn't see further than a few meters. The city has long been ranked among the top 10 most polluted cities in China.
But people in Shijiazhuang weren't taking it seriously. Her father is a vivid example. While he says he understands that pollution isn't good for you, he refuses to take any precautions. He exercises outside and keeps their apartment's windows open regardless of smog levels, saying he can take it because he's strong in mind and body. He half-jokingly said her British husband is weak because he wore a mask, explaining that everyone dies eventually anyway.
A public relations worker at air purifier firm Blue Air told the Global Times the company's main business is still focused in large cities like Beijing or Shanghai, not so much in second and third tier cities, let alone towns and villages, even though many of these places suffer from the heaviest pollution in China.
NGOs feel the same way when they do field research. Lin said that she was told that when experts in different fields did research in Jiangxi Province a while back, if they talked about enterprises or economic development, the locals were interested. When they tried talking about the environment, not many cared.
Other ways to police
Lin has found that NGOs have to change the way they deal with intransigent local governments and polluting firms. Friends of Nature has started pushing for improvements through lawsuits, which has turned out to be an effective method, even though costs are high and one can only go after one company at a time.
IPE's Ruan thinks changing public awareness and having the public police local governments and companies is an effective way to supervise their actions.
"I think in Shandong Province, for example, companies are so effective in updating pollution data that they can receive the public's feedback, and it actually helps their company," she said.
The IPE also has a few cell phone apps and websites, where the public can read hourly air and water pollution data from across China. The IPE collects this data and further communicates with different bureaus and companies and either requests more openness or sends them reports and analyses how to change the situation.
NGOs are also trying to establish friendly contacts with local governments. To help the Linfen issue, the IPE has sent letters to the environmental protection bureau, pushing for more openness, and is preparing for a lawsuit if it is needed.
"SO2 pollution is hard to see with one's naked eye, but if we have available data, then the public can be more aware of the situation and get their concerns across," she said.