Embassy Air Quality Tweets Said To “Confuse” Chinese Public

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SUBJECT: EMBASSY AIR QUALITY TWEETS SAID TO “CONFUSE” CHINESE
PUBLIC

SUMMARY AND BACKGROUND
———————-

¶1. (SBU) SUMMARY. At the request of the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs (MFA), ESTH Off and MED Off met on July 7 with Mr. WANG
Shuai of MFA’s Office of U.S. Affairs to respond to MFA’s concerns
about recent publicity in international and local press surrounding
an air quality monitor installed on the Embassy compound. MFA
registered complaints on behalf of the Beijing Environmental
Protection Bureau (EPB) and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental
Protection (MEP), saying that making this data (which in their view
“conflicts” with “official” data posted by the Beijing EPB)
available to the general public through an Embassy-operated Twitter
site has caused “confusion” and undesirable “social consequences”
among the Chinese public. MFA asked Post to consider either
limiting access to the air quality data only to American citizens,
or otherwise identify a suitable compromise. END SUMMARY.

¶2. (SBU) BACKGROUND: In February 2008, Post purchased and
installed a MetOne BAM 1020 continuous particulate monitor at the
former Embassy compound to measure the concentration of particulate
matter (PM) 2.5 in the area. In August 2008 the Embassy began
posting corresponding “real time” air quality index (AQI) numbers,
which are generated according to definitions set by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to an Embassy-managed Twitter
site (http://twitter.com/beijingair) on an hourly basis. While the
initiative originally was primarily geared toward informing the
Embassy community about levels of pollution in immediate proximity
to the compound, consular “no double standard” requirements prompted
Post to create the Twitter site as a user-friendly platform so that
private American citizens residing and traveling in Beijing are also
able to access the data. (NOTE: Particulates less than 2.5
micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5) are referred to as “fine”
particulates and are widely-accepted to pose the largest risk to
human health. Beijing EPB currently has the capacity to collect PM
2.5 data, but the agency only chooses to make available to the
public data on PM 10 (10 micrometers in diameter), and links the PM
10 data to Beijing EPB’s own “Air Pollution Index (API)”
definitions. Beijing EPB only publishes one daily average to
describe the previous 24-hour period and then offers a “forecast”
for the day to come. From a public health perspective, air quality
data posted after the fact offers non-actionable information of
little value to area residents, who want guidance on appropriate
levels of outdoor physical activity on a given day. END NOTE)

¶2. (SBU) While the existence of the Embassy’s air quality Twitter
site had become increasingly known to the American expatriate
population living in Beijing throughout the spring, local and
international press coverage spiked after Time Magazine published a
story online about the Embassy’s air monitor on June 19. Since June
19, the site’s number of “followers” has increased from
approximately 400 to the current total of 2500+, with at least 75
percent of the new followers being Chinese (judging from the screen
names used). Additional press articles have appeared in the South
China Morning Post, China Daily, and other outlets, with major local
online forums like Sina.com ablaze with Chinese “netizens”
commenting on this issue. (NOTE: The increased number of
registered followers probably only partially reflects the new
interest that exists among internet users in Twitter site’s
measurements. Since the site is open also to unregistered users, or
“non-followers,” a great many more likely access the site without
first registering as a follower. END NOTE) END BACKGROUND

TWITTER’S ACCESSIBILITY MAY CAUSE “SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES”
——————————————— ——–

¶3. (SBU) It was in this context that EmbOffs were summoned to MFA
on July 7 to listen to the Chinese government’s list of complaints
about the existence, function, and reach of the Embassy’s air
quality Twitter site. Interlocutors appeared willing to accept the
Embassy’s stated rationale that the monitor is needed for mission
community health purposes. WANG Shuai of MFA’s U.S. Affairs Office
stated that MFA, nevertheless, remains unhappy that the Embassy
decided to make the data available also to the general public via
the Twitter site. EmbOff explained the United States’ consular “no
double standard” regulations, which require the Embassy to share
with American citizens any available information related to security
and health.

¶4. (SBU) Wang then wondered, if the target audience included only
Embassy personnel, family members, and American citizens in the
area, why the information needed to be broadcast to the general
public and made accessible to the Chinese public as well. He stated
that the Embassy Twitter site had been causing unwanted “press
fuss,” and “confusion” among the Chinese public, which might lead to

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“social consequences.” Wang further commented that air quality data
should not follow a “market-based” approach, which has resulted in
the Chinese public now questioning “unnecessarily” the validity of
Beijing EPB’s data. In MFA’s view, Beijing EPB should be the sole
authoritative voice for making pronouncements on Beijing’s air
quality. He then requested that the Embassy explore ways to limit
access to data collected from the Embassy’s machine to only mission
members and American citizens.

COMPETING AIR QUALITY DATA: “NOT FAIR” TO EPB
——————————————— –

¶5. (SBU) According to Wang, the existence of the machine and the
openness of the Twitter site are “not fair” to the Beijing EPB. He
cited that the Twitter site’s consistent characterization in recent
days of Beijing air quality as “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” takes
credit away from “all the progress” Beijing EPB has made in recent
years in improving the city’s air quality. Wang added that the fact
that the Embassy’s air quality data is not based on the
Chinese-approved standards for measuring air pollution is not only
confusing but also insulting, citing that the U.S. government would
be similarly incensed if the Chinese Embassy in Washington were to
do the same. Wang concluded by again urging that if data could not
be limited to Americans only, the Embassy should identify a
“compromise.” Ultimately, MFA would “hate to see” the bilateral
environmental cooperation or even the overall relationship
negatively “affected by this issue.”

¶6. (SBU) EmbOff emphasized to MFA interlocutors that the Embassy’s
primary interest is to make the information collected by the air
monitor as easily-accessible by Mission personnel, family members,
and Americans residing and traveling in Beijing as possible.
Therefore, the Embassy has no position on non-American citizens also
having access to the data, nor is the Embassy concerned with how
others choose to interpret the information found on the Twitter
site. The Embassy does, however, have a strong interest in “setting
the record straight,” and ensuring that the public understands that
mission health has always been and remains the primary motivation
for the program. Furthermore, because the Embassy’s monitor only
collects data in one location, it cannot replace or negate the
information provided by the Beijing EPB. Finally, since the Embassy
collects data on PM 2.5 and Beijing EPB on PM 10, and each is
indexed differently, the two indices cannot and should not be
compared. Therefore, until the Beijing EPB begins publishing PM 2.5
data (which they already have the equipment to collect) on a real
time basis, the Embassy is not able to discontinue its program for
monitoring PM 2.5 onsite.

COMMENT
——-

¶7. (SBU) Although the exchanges at the meeting became heated at
times, EmbOffs perceived that the interlocutors were likely only
dutifully registering disapproval on behalf of national and city
environmental protection authorities. EmbOffs promised to relay
MFA’s concerns to relevant sections of the Embassy to see if a
compromise could be identified, however, Post does not feel at this
time that MFA presented any compelling arguments to warrant drastic
changes in or discontinuation of the Embassy’s PM 2.5 monitoring
program.

GOLDBERG