Wednesday, July 1, 2009

xinhua's international herald leader on the us embassy air quality monitor

This post contains some translation and commentary on the recent story in Xinhua's International Herald Leader (国际先驱导报) on the US Embassy's independent air quality monitor. The story was reprinted in the Hong Kong-based Phoenix magazine (凤凰) here.

First, title: I think it's noteworthy that, although the stories in the two Chinese-language sources are the same, the title in the IHL is 美国驻华使馆自建空气监测站 ("US Embassy Independently Sets Up Air Quality Monitoring Station"), whereas that in the Hong Kong-based Phoenix is more provocative: 美驻华使馆发布自测北京空气指数 与气象局数据分歧 ("US Embassy in China Issues Independently-Tested Beijing Air Quality Index - Different from the Meteorological Bureau's Data").

And now content: The IHT begins with similar content as the China Daily story: information about the Embassy's twitter feed and concerns about discrepancies with the officially-reported data, followed by assurance from an Embassy official that the numbers are not directly comparable. As in the China Daily, the IHT story then describes the health impact differences between PM2.5 and PM10.

Following this, though, the IHT diverges from the China Daily story. A section titled 建监测站应循通行规则 (Regulations Should Be Followed When Setting Up Monitoring Stations) questions whether the US Embassy's data is even valid:


According to Zhang Renhe, Director of the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, an air quality monitor must be installed in a location representative of of the entire city; moreover, there should be no pollution sources within 50m that could strongly impact the monitoring results...

In fact, the US embassy's independent air quality monitoring station is not in accordance with international criteria.



Completed last August, the US Embassy is located in the CBD business area, near the prime locations around Liangmahe. It is near the Ladies' Market and other commercial areas with high weekday traffic and bustling crowds; these factors all possibly influence the data recorded by the monitor.

On the 28th, this reporter visited the location of the US Embassy and discovered the large scale demolition of Super Bar Street across the street; much dust blew out from the messy construction site. Additionally, on the south side was another embassy area under construction...
Although the article does not question the accuracy of the Embassy's data, it clearly indicates that the Embassy's data is disproportionately bad because of poor and non-standard monitor placement. This possibility was not raised in the China Daily piece.

(Side note for future investigation: I think perhaps the US Embassy monitor is at the old embassy near Ritan park, not on site at the new location.)

Moving on, the article briefly mentions Steven Andrews' criticisms of Beijing's air quality management, that Beijing's air quality monitors have been selectively placed in areas of low pollution to yield better overall averages and that officials artificially inflated the statistics on number of blue sky days. Although it is noteworthy that the article mentions Mr. Andrews at all (I haven't seen his analysis directly covered in the Chinese media before), the article immediately quotes experts supposedly refuting his claims:


"Everyone can see the number of blue sky days, so how can they be faked?" [an analyst with the Chinese Academy of Meteorology] commented. In her eyes, to ensure a smooth Olympics in Beijing, through the effort of all of Beijing's citizens, there was indeed an obvious improvement to Beijing's air quality. "More blue sky days means a more transparent atmosphere, which means to some extent less pollutants."

In addition, Zhang Renhe felt he "couldn't understand" the suspicion that "some of the monitoring stations are located in low pollution areas." "Don't forget, air is also flowing," he said.
I can't quite understand what either of these experts meant, which may or may not be due to the language barrier. Despite that, though, it doesn't seem as if either expert addressed Mr. Andrews' concerns directly, so it doesn't make sense to me that the article would raise them at all.

Finally, the article quotes an anonymous Beijing EPB official saying that the Embassy is breaking no laws by independently monitoring air quality, before closing with this quote:

"However, the relevant "Environmental Monitoring Regulations" have already been placed into the State Council's legislation plan for this year; there is hope they will be passed this year," [the Beijing EPB official] said.
In other words, although there is nothing wrong with Beijing's current monitoring system, the Beijing EPB still hopes that it will be improved this year with new, unspecified State Council legislation.

Although I was initially encouraged by yesterday's direct and somewhat challenging China Daily piece, this Chinese-language Xinhua piece is more of what I would expect from China's state media: convoluted logic and fact-twisting that attempts to shape reality to fit the government's agenda as opposed to strong investigative reporting attempting to uncover the truth.

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