A man on an electric cycle crosses a street shrouded by haze in Beijing. (AP)
Hong Kong, June 5: After years of choking smog that stings the eyes and burns the lungs, regularly documented by an air sensor at the American embassy in Beijing that posts the results hourly on Twitter, the Chinese government took a strong position on the issue today.
Wu Xiaoqing, the vice-minister for environmental protection, demanded that foreign governments stop releasing data on China’s air.
In a criticism clearly aimed at the US, Wu said at a news conference that the public release of air-quality data by foreign governments’ consulates “not only doesn’t abide by the spirits of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, but also violates relevant provisions of environmental protection”.
He complained that data from just a few locations were unrepresentative of broader air quality in China.
He asserted that it was a mistake for a few of the consulates in China to be assigning labels, like “hazardous” to China’s air based on standards that were drafted in industrialised countries and tightened over the course of many years.
Such standards may not match conditions in developing countries like China, Wu said, adding that, “we hope the few consulates in China would respect our country’s relevant laws and regulations, and stop publishing this unrepresentative air-quality information”.
In case anyone missed the point, Liu Weimin, a foreign ministry spokesman, said at a briefing later in the day that, “Of course, if the foreign embassies want to collect air-quality information for their own staff or diplomats, I think that is their own matter, but we believe that this type of information should not be released to the public.”
The American embassy began tracking and releasing air-quality data in 2008, followed by its Guangzhou consulate last year and the Shanghai consulate last month.
Officials in China and Hong Kong have grudgingly responded by moving to release their own data on extremely fine particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, a size that penetrates particularly deep into lungs and has been linked to cancer and other respiratory problems.
Public awareness in China of the health hazards associated with extremely fine particles has soared with the release of the American data, and particularly smoggy days now trigger a surge in mentions of “PM2.5” on Weibo, a popular Chinese miniblogging service similar to Twitter.
The criticism of the US by Chinese officials comes after officials in Shanghai have recently taken exception to the public availability of data from the new monitor there. Richard L. Buangan, the American embassy spokesman, wrote in an email that the monitor “is a resource for the health of the consulate community, but is also available through our Twitter feed for American citizens who may find the data useful”.
He added: “We caution, however, that citywide analysis of air quality cannot be done using readings from a single machine.”
Buangan declined to comment on how the Vienna conventions might or might not have any legal bearing on the air monitors or the release of the data.
The top environmental official in Shanghai over the weekend also spoke out on the issue, telling local media that an air quality feed launched last month by the US consulate in Shanghai was illegal.
The US embassy said the air quality monitor in Shanghai measures the air quality in the area around the consulate’s office.
“The monitor is an unofficial resource for the health of the consulate community,” said Richard Buangan, embassy spokesman in Beijing.