Can Social Media Help Create Blue Skies in Beijing?

Photo of Beijing Smog by NRDC's Peter Lehner

Beijing’s smoggy skies are well-known, but progress toward solutions has been slow – that is, until the Chinese public took to social media to demand more government transparency.

Yale Environment 360’s Christina Larsson recently interviewed well-known Chinese environmental activist Ma Jun about public engagement in the fight for blue skies in Beijing. Jun is an investigative journalist and Director of the Chinese Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. He has also written many articles for ChinaDialogue.

He explains that the pollution problem in Beijing is particularly difficult to tackle since the region is still growing at a rapid rate. Even dust from construction adds to the particulate matter in the atmosphere. Increased demand for cars and electricity, combined with a long history of the release smog-creating emissions in the Beijing region, has created a situation that will require a multi-pronged approach.  An additional challenge arises from the fact that the surrounding metro Beijing region has less stringent regulations on emissions and coal-fired power generation.

Ma Jun advocates for more transparency and openness on behalf of the Chinese government, which he says will help the public become more aware and engaged in the steps needed to reduce emissions. Sharing data and publicizing a road map for reducing specific sources of emissions could allow stakeholders to become more involved in solving the problem.

In the interview, Ma Jun expresses his belief that social media is a growing force in China, particularly in creating a dialogue between the public and the government. Part of the push for transparency, says Jun, is that the public has begun to demand it. While government officials have been hesitant to publish air quality data for fear of creating a negative image of their regions, which in turn could impact investment, the public felt that their lives were being negatively impacted by pollution. With worries about children’s health and quality of life, the public began to leverage their access to information and information-sharing via the internet and social media. Suddenly, the government found itself in a position to respond to the public uproar.

China-based social media forums like Sina Weibo – which functions akin to Twitter and has over 250 million users – are extremely popular and growing on a daily basis. Ma Jun makes a direct connection between this increased public engagement and the decision by the Chinese government to adopt more stringent national ambient air standards for particulate matter a few months ago. He also credits celebrities for using social media to bring attention to the matter and create an upwelling of re-posting and information sharing that led to an official response.

With increased public engagement and more transparency on behalf of the government, China has a much better chance of taking the necessary steps to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions in the coming years. Read the interview in its entirety on Yale Environment 360 here.