China Lets Media Report on Air Pollution Crisis

The Chinese state news media on Monday published aggressive reports on what they described as the sickening and dangerous air pollution in Beijing and other parts of northern China, indicating that popular anger over air quality had reached a level where Communist Party propaganda officials felt that they had to allow the officially sanctioned press to address the growing concerns of ordinary citizens.

The across-the-board coverage of Beijing’s brown, soupy air, which has been consistently rated “hazardous” or even worse by foreign and local monitors since last week, was the most open in recent memory. Since 2008, when Beijing made efforts to clean up the city before the Summer Olympics, the air has appeared to degrade in the view of many residents, though the official news media have often avoided addressing the problem.

The wide coverage on Monday appears to be in part a reaction to the conversation that has been unfolding on Chinese microblogs, where residents of northern China have been discussing the pollution nonstop in recent days.

The problem is so serious — the worst air quality since the United States Embassy began recording levels in 2008 — that hospitals reported on Monday a surge in patient admissions for respiratory problems. Beijing officials ordered government cars off the road to try to curb the pollution, which some people say has been exacerbated by a weather phenomenon, called an inversion, that is trapping dirty particles.

“I’ve never seen such broad Chinese media coverage of air pollution,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, a business consultant in Beijing who tracks the Chinese news media. “From People’s Daily to China Central Television, the story is being covered thoroughly, without trying to put a positive spin on it.”

People’s Daily, the official party mouthpiece, published a front-page signed editorial on Monday under the headline “Beautiful China Starts With Healthy Breathing.” “The seemingly never-ending haze and fog may blur our vision,” it said, “but makes us see extra clearly the urgency of pollution control and the urgency of the theory of building a socialist ecological civilization, revealed at the 18th Party Congress.”

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