Peter Bohler

That’s the Air Quality Index value rating for air in Beijing’s embassy district at 11 PM local time on June 5, according to monitors at the U.S. embassy in the city. Since 2008 the U.S. embassy in Beijing has published hourly readings readings of the city’s often poor air quality on the Twitter account @BeijingAir. Often those ratings clash with the numbers released by the Chinese government in Beijing, in part because the American embassy scores pollution on U.S. standards, such that levels considered relatively safe by Beijing are rated as unhealthy by the U.S. That discrpeancy didn’t stop the @BeijingAir account from gaining more than 19,000 followers—including ordinary Chinese who have long distrusted their government’s reports on pollution.

Given the Chinese government’s sensitivity on environmental issues—and it’s irritation at anything viewed as foreign meddling in domestic affairs—it shouldn’t be surprising that the @BeijingAir account would eventually draw an official response. And that’s what happened on June 5, when China told foreign embassies to stop publishing their own reports on air quality in the country. (The U.S. consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou also post readings of the air quality of those cities on Twitter.) As of now the @BeijingAir account is still up and running, and it’s important to note that the American embassy has always said that the readings—which come from a single monitoring device on the roof of the embassy—were only meant to inform Americans living in the city. But with the Chinese leadership unnerved by recent events—and preparing for a possibly fraught leadership transition—it’s a reminder that in China, the environment is a political issue.

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