China's meteorological bureau may be ordered to stop issuing smog warnings, sparking fears that the government may be getting ready to censor air pollution data centrally.
The country's Meteorological Administration reportedly told regional bureaus on Tuesday to "immediately stop issuing smog alerts," in a photograph of an official notice posted on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.
Official Chinese news website The Paper quoted a meteorological official as saying that the move was aimed at avoiding conflicting information being issued to the public.
"Meteorological bureaus and the environmental protection administration often disagree when they issue smog-related information," the official said. "A joint alerting mechanism will be formulated to consult how to and who should issue alerts for smog."
The Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said talks had begun on Wednesday over a unified alert system for the swathes of toxic smog that shroud much of northern and central China each winter.
On Dec. 7, Beijing's emergency services management center issued a red alert on air pollution, while the city's weather bureau posted an orange alert for smog, the paper reported.
China has a four-tier warning system for air pollution, with a red alert issued if the a city's air quality index reaches 500, or after four consecutive days of heavy air pollution over 200 including two days of severe air pollution at levels over 300 on the index.
Mass falsification of data
Environmental activist Wu Lihong said the government should be pouring resources into combating the causes of pollution, rather than arguing over how to present the data.
He said the emphasis on reporting was worrying.
"Why would they bring out such a rule [about the reporting of smog alerts] if they were pouring their time and material resources into a genuine effort to clean up the smog at its source?" Wu told RFA.
"I am very angry that they don't seem to be making a proper effort."
He said the environmental protection ministry, which looks set to wrest control of smog alerts from the meteorological bureaus, had admitted that vast amounts of pollution data were falsified last year.
"And it's not just the air pollution data; the water pollution and soil pollution data were found to be falsified [by environmental officials] in more than 1,000 cases," Wu said.
"If they're in charge of a unified statistic, and they've been fiddling the figures all along, who is going to believe them?"
Bamboozling the public?
Some commentators on social media picked up the same theme.
"If the environmental protection ministry wants to take over the reporting of figures from the meteorological bureau, what are they going to do about the falsification of data?" one user commented.
Another remarked, with what appeared to be biting irony: "At least the government has come up with a truly effective way of dealing with the smog."
Last year, the government sanctioned 1,499 environmental protection officials in Henan province alone, because of "poor air pollution control," official media reported.
Rights activist Wang Fazhan said the government is determined not to let the public know the truth about air pollution, however.
"I don't think there's any need at all for the air pollution figures to be unified in this way," Wang said. "I think the reason they want a unified message is so that they can bamboozle the public."
"There is too much government collusion with business behind the attempt to clean up the smog, so when they can't fix it, they try to stop people talking about it," he said.
"Ordinary citizens aren't allowed to talk about it, and now the government isn't allowed to either. But will that make the smog disappear?"
Meanwhile, authorities in Henan have banned the use of firecrackers and fireworks ahead of Chinese New Year in a bid to limit air pollution, prompting derision from local residents.
"So this year they suddenly issue this new rule," a local resident surnamed Chang told RFA. "Does the government really believe that firecrackers are the cause of poor air quality?"
"This is a tradition in rural areas, to let off firecrackers on Chinese New Year; not setting them off is unthinkable," he said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.