Fog or Smog?

Definitely smog. This was the conclusion that many Chinese reached  about a week ago when the U.S. embassy declared a new level in its Air Quality Index (AQI) from “Hazardous” to “Beyond Index.” Yet the Chinese government continued to insist that the cloud blanketing the city of Beijing was not a result of pollution but of the weather. Why is this?
Smog in 2008 from Time.

Smog December 2011 from the BBC.

Well, according to the Chinese standards, the air quality was just fine. The standards to which the levels of pollution are measured, however, vary greatly between the US embassy and Chinese monitors. The US embassy apparently includes particles that are one-quarter the size of the smallest particles (2.5µm v.s. 10µm) included by the Chinese monitors when accounting for harmful particulate matter in the air. Needless to say, the US index reports the air being much worse. Not just worse, though, more than 10 times worse than the maximum "safe" levels declared by the U.S. EPA.

Funny enough, many people now acknowledge the US embassy as the authority on air pollution in Beijing. On twitter, Beijingers can follow BeijingAir to get updates on the air quality from the US embassy, much to the chagrin of the Chinese government. With more than 16,000 followers and increasing, it is a formidable source of information in a place where the state-controlled media is constantly trying to manipulate the public to align with party ideals.

Why would the Chinese government plainly lie about the condition of pollution, which has been a painful subject for many years? Refusal to acknowledge this obvious threat to public health has enraged many people, and rightfully so.

It was the same in the United States 50 years ago; environmental regulations were either non-existent or ignored. That is, until cascade of events and public outcry woke up sleepy politicians, such as the release of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and the Cuyahoga river fire. It seems likely that a similar environmental justice movement is inevitable in China – too much pollution is devastating China’s dwindling natural resources. Heads will inevitably roll, but unfortunately no one will be able to see on account of the smog. Shucks.

Sources consulted:

F. Miller, SAS ‘13