China Censors Mobile App That Provides 'Airpocalypse' Data

The move is the latest episode in a years-long battle to suppress information about Beijing's notoriously bad air quality.

by Matt Smith
Nov 12 2014, 9:05pm

Image via AP/Sergei Grits

Can't control pollution? Squelch the numbers.

That's what China appears to have done to at least one web application that provides readings on Beijing's notorious smog problem. Fresh Air Studio, which makes the China Air Quality Index app for Apple and Android mobile devices, was told to stop posting readings from the U.S. Embassy as China's capital hosted an Asia-Pacific economic summit this week.

"Data from this source was censored on the orders from government," the app reported Tuesday.

The message was gone Wednesday and the developer did not respond to an inquiry from VICE News. But several users posted screenshots of the message on Twitter and, though U.S. consulate readings from Shanghai and Guangzhou were still being posted early Thursday, the China Air Quality Index application displayed only Chinese government data for Beijing.

The embassy posts hourly readings of fine-particulate concentrations and rates them on a scale from "good" (50 micrograms or less per cubic meter of air) to "hazardous" (300 and up.) Chinese President Xi Xinping made clearing the air over his capital a priority ahead of the summit, with his government ordering factories in nearby provinces to shut down and drivers to stay off the roads. But as leaders gathered Monday night for the summit, the American readings climbed into the "very unhealthy" 160s.

The pollution problems faced by the world's most populous and rapidly industrializing country are so bad they've been nicknamed "airpocalypse."

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Jennifer Turner, head of the China Environment Forum at the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said the country has made great strides in accurately reporting the extent of pollution since 2008. The government has demanded more open reporting of air quality in its cities and U.S. environmental groups have been allowed to work with their Chinese counterparts to gauge pollution levels, she said.

"They've been on this push to be more transparent, which is pretty darn amazing for China," Turner told VICE News. "But it's been kind of a bumpy road."

The country's environment ministry has begun ranking cities by their air quality, with only 5-10 percent hitting their targets for reducing fine particulates. It will be up to the Chinese central government to determine whether there will be consequences for government officials in the worst-ranking cities. But, says Turner: "The fact that you are getting the bad news is a big step."

Authorities in Beijing have been complaining about US embassy air-quality data since 2009, according to American diplomatic cables disclosed by the online anti-secrecy group Wikileaks. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) summoned embassy representatives to question why the data "needed to be broadcast to the general public and made accessible to the Chinese public as well," a cable recapping the meeting reported.

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"MFA registered complaints on behalf of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), saying that making this data (which in their view 'conflicts' with 'official' data posted by the Beijing EPB) available to the general public through an Embassy-operated Twitter site has caused 'confusion' and undesirable 'social consequences' among the Chinese public," the cable states. The meeting "became heated at times," it added.

And in 2012, Deputy Environmental Protection Minister Wu Xiaoqing said the numbers reported by embassies in Beijing "cannot truly reflect the quality of air in the city."

The embassy qualifies its readings by noting that the data "is a resource for the health of the American community."

Turner said China is being forced to confront its environmental problems because of rising numbers of deaths and illnesses among its own population — and because of concerns by international businesses about their own workers.

"China's seen as a high-risk work environment now because the air quality is so bad," she said. 

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl