Magazine / October 2013

The turning point happens on Chinese Twitter

A girl and her mother wear respirator masks and hold a banner reading “No PM2.5”.

A girl and her mother wear respirator masks and hold a banner reading “No PM2.5”.

© Greenpeace / Wu Di

In October 2011, a long run of smoggy days once again tormented Beijing. The U.S Beijing embassy posted hourly air quality data on Twitter, which showed Beijing’s air was beyond index.

READ THE REPORT Dangerous Breathing

The air was “crazy bad” as they jokingly called it. Twitter is blocked by Chinese Internet controls; thus many users took this embassy data and reposted it onto the Chinese microblog Weibo. There were comparisons made between the embassy data with data from China's official figures, which claimed the air quality was good. With hundreds of millions of users engaged with the topic, the online discussion spread like wild fire. A butterfly effect saw two months of online discussion begin to spill into traditional media across the country. Remarkable that just a few posts online could create a storm of debate, both online and off.

Air pollutionAnd in these discussions, depth of knowledge also increased. Participants lived in different cities, and came from different backgrounds. Some kept up the posting and reposting of comparisons between the U.S embassy and Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) data, and introduced the concept of Air Quality Index and Air Pollutant Index. This marked the introduction of PM2.5 to the public. And this concern over air pollution broadened from Beijing to major cities along the Chinese coastline. Doctors posted articles about what PM2.5 is and its health risks. Citizens posted comparison photos taken on “crazy bad” with blue-sky days. Some NGOs started monitoring PM2.5 levels in their cities, and smart phone app developers collected and published daily PM2.5 monitoring data from the U.S embassy in Beijing.

A technical explanation was given as to why the MEP's data told a different story to that of the U.S embassy, but nonetheless public anger about the government's monitoring system had been triggered. The discussion reached a large population. It was a period of high news coverage, in which reports flooded every news channel but insights were few.

During this time the Greenpeace coal campaign was looking for a new entry point, which would be more relevant to Chinese audiences. We grasped the opportunity to start a pilot air pollution project focusing on PM2.5 health impacts and actively pushed the links between coal use and air pollution. By publishing and distributing research captures, health prevention kits, briefings that explain exactly what PM2.5 is and the importance of PM2.5 monitoring and information disclosure, we contributed to the building of public awareness and stimulated the desire for even more information.

However, during this time it was extremely difficult to talk about coal as the main pollution source. The vast majority of people were still asking more general questions about what PM2.5 is. Along with many other active NGOs, we worked hard to push for PM2.5 information disclosure as a first step. We knew that once that PM2.5 data was released to the public, it would become like a beast released from its cage. The government would have little other choice but to take real action to solve the air pollution problem.

Just a few months after the discussion started the government promised metering and public disclosure of the PM2.5 figures. Very soon, city monitoring sites were established. Just as the debate had done, the monitoring sites now spread to all major cities in China. Beijing, the nation's capital, disclosed its research monitoring data on PM2.5 before the 2012 Chinese New Year. It was a first win for all those who had participated in this fight. However, there was still more work to be done. We recognized it was time to lead the debate to the issue of coal and effective solutions.