China's Smog App Could Be Hampered by Lying Officials

View of a high-rise building in heavy smog in Jilin province, Feb. 12, 2014.

A new smartphone app that aims to track air pollution from Chinese factories in real time could be of little use to worried residents if the figures that power it aren't accurate, according to environmental activists.

The app, launched on Monday by the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, claims to show details of factories across China that are currently flouting air pollution laws.

Based on emissions figures reported in real time to China's Ministry of Environmental Protection by some 15,000 factories, the app collates the data for the first time in one place.

The software produces hourly emission updates and indicates infringing polluters with a red dot on a GPS map covering 190 Chinese cities.

Amid growing public anger over sky-high pollution levels, Beijing recently began publishing more detailed air pollution data, while some provincial governments now post local emission data on their websites.

According to senior project manager Gu Beibei, the app could help people to name and shame offending companies.

"If the air quality is bad you can switch (to the factory map) and see who is in your neighborhood," she told reporters. "It will be a very effective tool for people to voice out their concerns."

Jiangsu-based environmentalist Wu Lihong said a lack of reliable data on pollution is one of the biggest hurdles facing the country's nascent environmental movement.

"It's great that an environmental group in Beijing has brought out this app, but a lot of these non-government environmental groups are in league with the government for their own survival, and they don't necessarily publish accurate figures to the public," Wu said.

Air quality challenges

Officials admit that China faces major challenges in improving air quality, with just three out of 74 major cities achieving the standard for "good" air quality last year.

Seven of the 10 most polluted cities in 2013 were clustered in the north and east of the country, and are mostly polluted by industry, power stations, vehicle emissions and dust, Li Ganjie, vice minister of environmental protection, told a news conference in Beijing last week.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party announced a five-year action plan on air pollution at the end of last year, which aims to slash the country's reliance on coal and shutter polluting enterprises.

Beijing also removed limits on the amounts polluters can be forced to pay in fines.

However, campaigners say that China already has an exemplary set of environmental protection laws, but that close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level.

Stopping pollution

Hangzhou-based environmental activist Chen Faqing said the app was a good thing, but could only be as good as the data that powers it.

"Polluting enterprises are often in cahoots with local governments ... so polluters are able to remain outside the law," Chen said.

"This [app] won't do much to stop pollution."

Song Xin, founder of the Beijing-based non-government group "Green Beijing," said there had been a distinct improvement in the quality of air pollution data reported by the government, however.

He said the main reason was the growing number of citizens who are witnessing or measuring pollution independently.

"This is something that everyone can see, and there are many different methods one can use to measure it, too," Song said. "So I think there has been a change in the level of openness."

But he said effective enforcement of pollution regulations was still a long way off.

"Change isn't easy because ... of the system we have for new construction," he said. "What's more, it's also bound up with vested interests at the local level, and the impotence of the environmental protection bureaus to supervise enterprises."

He said the amount needed to clean up pollution after it entered the environment far outstrips the investment needed to prevent it from being released in the first place.

Professor Hu Xingdou of Beijing's University of Science and Technology, said the government had stepped up its bid to clean up the environment in recent years, but isn't using earmarked funding efficiently.

"The majority of the funding has been wasted, owing to a lack of public supervision of the bureaucracy by citizens," Hu said.

"Without an effective system for public oversight, the pollution problem won't be resolved."

Reported by Gao Shan and He Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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