China Deletes Online Criticism of Toxic Smog Choking Its Cities

beijing-smog-12162016.jpg High-rise buildings enveloped in heavy smog in Beijing, Dec. 16, 2016.

As northern China entered its second day on red alert for toxic smog (not all cities are on red, many are on yellow/orange), online censors moved to delete content criticizing the ruling Chinese Communist Party for its handling of the air pollution crisis that grips the country every winter.

Calls have been growing on social media to pin down the government departments responsible for the various factors contributing the toxic brown soup that hundreds of millions of people are forced to breathe in many Chinese cities.

"The State Council must make a formal statement to the 1.4 Chinese people explaining itself," one commentator wrote, calling for "formal plans" to tackle the problem within the next decade.

"People understand that the water can support the boat, but that it can also sink it," the article warned, in a metaphor referring to the ruling party and the people.

The post was rapidly deleted from social media sites and the popular smartphone chat app WeChat.

References and links to a Financial Times article in Chinese by outspoken Beijing University law professor Zhang Qianfan, titled "Can China find its way out of its systemic smog?" were also apparently targeted by censors, returning messages indicating a "violation of content regulations" on Friday.

No real plan

Beijing resident Guo Guijun said the deletion of online content about the smog showed the authorities have no real plan to tackle the problem.

"If they are even going to delete content that is public knowledge, then I think they lack the courage to face up to the situation," Guo said. "The facts are the facts ... and avoiding the issue isn't going to solve anything."

She said many people in Beijing are feeling a sense of despair in the face of the smog.

"I'm from Beijing; I don't have anywhere else I could go," Guo said. "For me, there's no escape."

"We need a leader who is willing to take responsibility and be accountable to the people, because everyone wants this problem to get fixed," she said.

Help for schools

Meanwhile, the Beijing government said it would help finance air purification systems in the city's schools to protect children's health.

Beijing's municipal government education bureau called on district governments to move ahead with purification systems as part of a pilot scheme that could soon be rolled out citywide, official media reported on Friday.

The city government will allocate money to help schools cover the costs, the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported.

It said kindergartens and primary and middle schools in Dongcheng, Xicheng, Chaoyang, Haidian, and Fengtai districts have already installed such devices, with financial support from the government, enterprises, and parents.

Earlier this week, a middle school affiliated with the prestigious Tsinghua University installed the first batch of air filtration devices in 11 classrooms, and will soon install them in all classrooms, the paper said.

Beyond hazardous

Many northern Chinese cities have seen hazardous levels of air pollution, with some measuring far beyond the "hazardous" level of 500 on air quality indices in recent days.

As of 3.00 p.m. local time on Friday, the northern oil city of Daqing saw an AQI level of 999, Quartz news reported after monitoring the online Real-time Air Quality Index, which tracks air pollution readings in cities around the world.

The smog also appeared to be drifting south on Friday.

The provincial meteorological bureau in the southern province of Guangdong issued a warning of "moderate to severe" air pollution for Friday and Saturday in the Pearl River Delta region.

In Hong Kong, where downtown areas logged air quality readings at an "unhealthy" 152 in some busy areas on Friday, government officials said air pollution in the city had showed a marginal improvement in some areas during 2016.

Air quality official Mok Wai-chuen said the city had recently adopted the World Health Organization (WHO) target for nitrogen dioxide into its air quality objectives, which he described as "very strict."

"We have been able to achieve the short-term objectives for the general air monitoring stations, but not for the roadside stations," he said of the pollutant, which is linked to exhaust fumes from diesel vehicles.

Reported by Yang Fan and Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.


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