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Chinese fuming on social media over air pollution

 Is the Chinese government trying to turn Beijing’s air pollution into an Internet “rumor”?


Kevin Morris


A dense cloud of dangerous smog has choked China’s capital city for days, and ordinary Chinese are fuming on the country’s microblogging platforms.

“The pollution in Beijing is really, really serious.” Sina Weibo user Bai Xiaonian wrote. “My nose has hurt for the past few days. If things keep going like this, a good number of people are simply going to collapse.”

According to the Associated Press, more than 4.4 million Weibo users commented on the pollution Monday. Surgical masks and air purifiers were also trending topics as of Tuesday, with 200,000 and 2 million mentions, respectively.

On Sina Weibo’s largest competitor, Tencent, more than 68 million users discussed Beijing’s pollution, making it the fourth most popular topic of the day.

The smog first swept into the city over the weekend, resulting in hundreds of cancelled flights. On Tuesday the pollution reached levels that the U.S. embassy described as “very unhealthy.”

The outrage on China’s social media platforms reflects serious concerns over public health in China—even as officials continue to refer to the smog as “fog,” and official air quality reports rate the air as “excellent” or “good” in Beijing 80 percent of the year.

The United States embassy, on the other hand, reports almost the exact opposite: 80 percent of days in Beijing feature dangerous levels of smog. Lung cancer in Beijing has increased 60 percent over the past decade, even though smoking rates have stayed the same, according the Beijing Health Bureau. Lung cancer kills nearly 600,000 people every year in China.

Considering its carefully managed public image about pollution, the Beijing government can’t be happy about millions of angry Chinese venting their frustrations online, many of whom are eviscerating the government for its dishonest pollution reports.

“Thanks very much to the party and government for letting us live in a fairy tale land,” Weibo user Weifenglinling wrote sarcastically

This latest case of online outrage comes amidst a flurry of ominous signs for free speech on China’s social networks and other independent media.

Over the weekend the new president of China’s largest broadcasting corporation in China, the state-run CCTV, warned journalists they will “never go far” if they don’t take up a role as a government “mouthpiece.”

Just last week, Sina Weibo announced a voluntary real-name registration system, asking users to submit their names, ID numbers, and phone numbers. The system’s goal was to “make it easier to find Weibo users who have fake identities and to eradicate online rumors,” a Sina representative told China Daily.

Rumors, it turns out, are a major concern of the Chinese government.  In October, an official document hinted strongly at increased censorship and monitoring of China’s microblogging platforms in order to limit the spread of dangerous rumors.

China media blogger Bill Bishop has noted a “coordinated propaganda” effort from the Chinese government in recent weeks. “In the last week there have been multiple articles in official Chinese media about the importance of the proper handling of microblogs and the dangers of Internet rumors,” Bishop wrote on his blog, DigiCha.

So that begs the question: Is Beijing’s air pollution become nothing more than a dangerous Internet rumor? Are photographs rumors, too? The one below was taken by Flickr user Da Yang on Dec. 4

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