A Chinese environmental group has called on Beijing to implement policy changes to clean up the capital's air pollution instead of trying to prevent foreign diplomats from publishing its air monitoring results online.
Song Xinzhou, the founder of the environmental protection group Green Beijing, said the government should give official backing to initiatives by nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to help clean up the environment.
"Government departments could relax their policies so as to allow NGOs to receive official, legal backing for their activities," Song said.
"This support should include policy-level support for their existence and their activities, as well as investment," he said.
Speaking after Chinese deputy environmental protection minister Wu Xiaoqing told the U.S. Embassy in Beijing not to publish air pollution figures on its website, Song said most people who live in the Chinese capital don't need a set of figures to tell them that the air pollution is serious.
"This is something that everybody knows," he said. "We can all feel it, and we can all see its more visible aspects."
Wu demanded on Tuesday that foreign embassies stop issuing air pollution readings, saying this is against the law and diplomatic conventions, in pointed criticism of a closely watched U.S. embassy index.
Beijing has vowed to tighten its air-quality monitoring following widespread anger at discrepancies between government air quality readings and the visible smog that blankets China's major cities.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection only recently began to issue standards for the PM2.5 measurement of suspended particulates, the smallest specks of combusted particles contained in smoke, and the most damaging to human health.
China's air monitoring figures previously omitted measures of PM2.5 particles, leading many ordinary Chinese to club together and buy equipment to detect them, posting the results online.
The level of air pollution in Beijing varies depending on the wind, with the city's familiar blanket of smog boosted by industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust, dust from the Gobi desert, and aerosols. Last December, hundreds of planes were grounded and freeways shut down by poor visibility caused by smog.
Beijing residents have traditionally dismissed official air pollution readings—which usually admit only to "slight" air pollution—as propaganda.
U.S. Embassy readings
However, the U.S. embassy's Twitter feed, which posts hourly air quality readings from a monitoring point on its roof, is widely followed, as are similar feeds from U.S. consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Official readings and the U.S. embassy reading often show a large discrepancy, although both U.S. officials and Chinese experts have said that results obtained from a single monitoring station aren't authoritative.
Wu told reporters on Tuesday that such readings should stop, without naming the U.S. missions directly.
"According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations ... foreign diplomats are required to respect and follow local laws and cannot interfere in internal affairs," Wu told a news conference.
"China's air quality monitoring and information release involve the public interest and are up to the government. Foreign consulates in China taking it on themselves to monitor air quality and release the information online not only goes against the spirit of the Vienna Convention ... it also contravenes relevant environmental protection rules."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin called on foreign diplomatic missions to respect China's laws and regulations and to stop issuing the readings, "especially over the Internet".
"If the foreign embassies want to collect this kind of information for their own staff and diplomats, I think it's up to them," Liu told reporters. "They can't release this information to the outside world."
Around 350,000 people in China die prematurely each year from exposure to outdoor air pollution, with a further 300,000 premature deaths caused by indoor air pollution, according to a 2007 study by the World Bank.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin service and Ho Shan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.