It’s very easy for the Chinese netizens to put side this time, and the winner is definitely not the Chinese government. What on the surface looks like a catfight between the world’s two biggest powers is deep down a war of “soft power”.
First, a playback of recent news on who has or has not the right to publish air quality data in China. (i.e., PM 2.5 data, which is a technical term for microscopic bits of matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter that can lodge deep in the lungs and cause a variety of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.)
Map of China by PM 2.5 by NASA. The darker the color, the worse the air quality.
“Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Wu Xiaoqing told a press conference Tuesday that foreign embassies posting information about Chinese air quality was a violation of Chinese law and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. “Diplomats are obligated to respect and abide by the laws and regulations in the receiving states. In addition, they cannot interfere with the domestic issues of receiving states,’ Wu said. “We wish those embassies and consulates will respect China’s laws and stop publishing air quality data which is not representative.’” [Time]
“”Foreign embassies and consulates [i.e. US embassies] in China don’t have the legal authority to monitor China’s environment or release relevant data, nor do they have the professional capabilities or conditions to do so,” said Liu Weimin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, at a daily press briefing. “We hope relevant foreign embassies and consulates will comply with universally recognized international conventions as well as Chinese laws and stop such irresponsible actions.” [CNN]
“The U.S. does not plan to stop reporting its air-quality data, Mark C. Toner, a deputy State Department spokesperson, said at a briefing Tuesday. “We provide the American community, both our Embassy and consulate personnel, as well as the American community writ large, information it can use to make better daily decisions regarding the safety of outdoor activities,” he said. Toner described the readings as “information that Americans get in U.S. cities every day.” [Time]
“The Chinese government has no interest in monitoring and releasing air-quality readings for US cities, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at the ministry’s regular news conference on Wednesday.” [China Daily]
So what’s the big deal? It’s never news that air quality in China, Beijing in particular, is horrible and the US embassy in Beijing started to release air quality data via @BeijingAir on Twitter since 2008. Isn’t it too late for the Chinese government to be pissed until 4 years later?
Well…first off, US embassies in China don’t only publish air quality data in Beijing, but also in Guangzhou, and most recently in Shanghai (starting just last month), which means the US has covered 3 of China’s most developed and densely-populated urban areas.
More importantly, Chinese government probably wouldn’t be so pissed if the US embassies have only broadcast the data to its 20,000-ish followers on Twitter, which is blocked in China. Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and Weibo (China’s Twitter-like service), there are probably millions of people in China who got to see air quality data from US embassies on a daily basis. For example, a simple search for air quality apps in Apple app store returned a dozen results that all feature PM2.5 numbers from the US embassies in China (e.g., this, this and this). 潘石屹, chariman of the board at SOHO China who has over 11 million followers on Weibo, shared air quality data from US embassies in Beijing and Shanghai every day.
To make things worse, pushed by the US, local Ministries of Environmental Protection in China started to publish air quality monitoring data, too, this year. Their numbers, not surprisingly, more often than not are better than figures from the US embassies. And guess what, the Chinese people choose to believe in US figures like it is a no-brainer and assured the Chinese numbers being fake and sugarcoated.
On one hand, the Chinese government is trying very very hard to promote “soft power”, but never seems to accomplish anything. The most recent slap on the face is Confucius Institutes, which are probably the most successful parts of China’s “soft power” plan. But not only did Confucius Institutes fall in scandals of illegal hires in the US, the Chinese netizens also called them “tools of propaganda”and thought they should be shut down. It’s just sad.
On the other hand, the US effortlessly (though there may be a lot of strategic planning at the back end) turned its embassies in China into textbooks of how to achieve “soft power.” US embassies are THE turn-to sources for air quality monitoring data in China. If that’s not humiliating enough, there is also US Ambassador Mr. Locke, “the pawn and tool of the US government”. Mr. Locke is literatly seen as the role model of what a great government official should be.
In fact, something involving Mr. Locke that has made Chinese government look equally bad happened just last month. There was a week or two in May that were literally the Locke-bashing weeks. Several major news outlets in China called Mr. Locke a “troublemaker” and a “tool” for American subversion of China’s power. Beijing Daily even urged Mr. Locke to disclose his personal assets, something that the Chinese people have been asking from the country’s corrupted officials for years. So no wonder the whole Locke-bashing got totally backfired when the official US embassy Weibo account posted downloadable personal assets information of Mr. Locke from US government websites.
China’s attempt of reducing the growing influence and popularity of the US government got backfired twice in less than two months. One thing is that Beijing never learned to clean its own @ss before pointing fingers to others. Like netizen 左手Janze joked about Beijing’s response to the air quality catfight: “We are actually quite interested in the air quality in the US. Why not go ahead and publish US air quality data? Better to give us hourly data! And please also expose the food safety issues and the counterfeiting issues in the US. Let us all learn what a hypocrite the US is.”
The more scary reason, though, is that the Chinese government has no credibility or whatsoever among its own people. The US government wins over the hearts of Chinese netizens by simply opening a Weibo account. Like Global Time wrote today in article titled “How to cope with a more active US embassy“: “The reason why US embassies in China are able to grow more active is that they have a group of faithful followers in China.”