Social Media Activism in China Resulting From PM 2.5

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My concern is when the public built a sense of collective identity by claiming their right to know, the authority instantly inversed this trust crisis by identifying this campaign as the behaviour of collectivism and patriotism. People complimented the rapid response from the central government, but probably neglecting the way they were claiming their rights by using social media has led to a more severe censorship system. Since then the movement #Imonitortheairqualityformycountry, I rarely saw such campaigns on Weibo, the saddest thing is that most opinion leaders and intellectuals who were active during the anti-smog drive have closed their Weibo accounts. Who knows what they suffered after the event of the anti-smog drive.

Environmental issues are of great concern to every country. In recent years, atmospheric particulate pollution has become a very representative environmental issue. Since the end of 2011, attention to smog has begun to attract the public, and jargon vocabulary like PM2.5 has become popular. In the past few years, the struggle between the public and the smog has also shown social media activism with Chinese characteristics. As early as 2008, the US Embassy in China began testing China’s air quality and published an air quality index on Twitter every hour. But because few people can access twitter and the Beijing Olympics and Tibet issues, The results of the PM 2.5 test released by the US Embassy did not attract much attention.

In October 2011, Weibo ( a Chinese microblogging equivalent to Twitter) user Pan Shiyi (Business elite) posted a pollution data published by the US Embassy in Beijing, showing an air quality index of 439 and a PM2.5 fine particle concentration of 408. This Weibo thread was quickly retweet and received nearly 7,000 comments. Later, in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wenzhou and other cities, a Social Media Activism campaign named #Imonitortheairqualityformycountry was launched. They published the self-monitored PM2.5 data on Weibo for public reference.

Poster of #Imonitortheairqualityformycountry

In 2012, known as “Smog Year”, the State Council issued a request for local governments to announce the PM2.5 data to the public. PM2.5 was written in the “National Environmental Standards Regulations” and listed as one of the top ten popular science events in 2012. The quality of the atmospheric environment received unprecedented social attention. In 2014, the first government work report in the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party was written, strengthening the force of dealing with the issue of PM2.5. At the end of February 2015, Chai Jing released the documentary “Under the Dome”, which caused widespread concern, and pushed the public’s attention to smog to a climax.

Looking back on the entire process, it started with social media, which elicited extensive discussions and aroused the concern of the authority as well as forced the government to enact relevant regulations, and then pushed by Chai Jing’s (a Chinese journalist, former television host, author and environmental activist) documentary “Under the Dome”. The public’s demand for the government to formulate effective, transparent policies and take the initiative to cope with the deteriorating environment was realized. Whether it is a Weibo activism campaign or a Chai Jing documentary, its essence is the manifestation of media activism in China.

In western countries, media activism is a form of social movement that uses social media and mass media to engage in collective action. Compared with Western countries, media activism in China appears to be more personal and often does not talk about the meaning at the political level, but mainly serves as a means to conduct social struggles.

#Imonitortheairqualityformycountry erupted from the smog event in 2011 and is a typical representative of Chinese-style social media activism. The US Embassy in China announces PM2.5 every day, and the index repeatedly jumps to 200, which was already in the “very unhealthy” level of the US Environmental Protection Agency. In the daily air quality report released by the China Environmental Protection Agency, the PM2.5 data was only “light pollution”, which was seriously inconsistent with people’s apparent experience, and the data collection and statistical methods lacked transparency. Therefore, the environmental protection organization “Darwin Natural Knowledge Service”, scientific research institutions, business elites, opinion leaders, and ordinary people jointly launched a PM2.5 self-monitoring campaign. This “anti-official identification” online campaign made great progress. In Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wenzhou and other cities, they published the measured PM2.5 data on Weibo, which caused public opinion pressure on relevant authorities and eventually forced official to acknowledge PM2.5 data announced by the US embassy.

The development of social media in China has played a role in fueling media activism. In the process of “ #Imonitortheairqualityformycountry”, Weibo played a huge role, and its convenience, grassroots and other characteristics made it extremely widely used. Everyone can upload their measured data to Weibo, and leverage the openness and transparency of Weibo topics to interact and communicate with each other. Therefore, individuals can personally monitor their own behaviour, form a group action, and build a sense of collective identity. Due to the low-cost characteristics of Weibo participation, information has also been accelerated to spread, social networking has been gradually improved, and finally, has directly affected the official party media, forcing them to speak. This process is proof of the reason for the progress of Chinese social media activism.