Thanks for the Blue Skies, G20 Hangzhou

A view of downtown Shanghai on August 18

For many people, this photo is nothing to write home about it. Being able to see a blue sky peeking through the clouds on a sunny day is commonplace, after all. It wasn’t something I thought much about until I moved to a country where a summer sky is more likely to resemble the grayish-blue hue of exhaust smoke than the bright azure I always knew when I was growing up in Miami.

People from China’s east coast, where a huge portion of the country’s industry is based, appreciate a clear day when they have one. And this year’s G20 summit is bringing weeks of gorgeous weather to the region as China prepares for an influx of foreign leaders and media.

Shanghai’s Environmental Protection Bureau has ordered factories in the region to shut down in the weeks leading to the environmental conference, which will take place in the nearby city Hangzhou on September 4-5. Although Reuters reported factory closures would begin August 26,  my recent ability to take deep breaths of fresh air seems to indicate that some may have shut their doors a bit earlier.

The government is taking several steps to ensure the clear blue hue (already dubbed by Chinese media and social media as “G20 blue”) will endure until the end of the summit.

According to China Daily, “environmental protection inspectors will patrol key transportation areas, such as the airport, railway station and highways to catch emission violators and to prevent the burning of crop waste and garbage.” In addition to Shanghai, neighboring provinces are also reducing or halting production in an effort to keep the skies G20-blue for the upcoming conference.

International meetings tend to result in clear air in China.The notoriously smoggy Beijing was free of its hallmark air pollution when it hosted a meeting of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 2014. To achieve “APEC-blue” skies, the government stopped production in 10,000 factories and reduced production in another 39,000 in the provinces surrounding Beijing.

It speaks to the enormity of China’s air pollution problem that the government is shutting down industry in a major region (which I assume must have some kind of economic consequence) for at least two weeks in order to give Hangzhou the illusion of a clean environment. Because whatever appears in photos or on television during the conference’s coverage will be just that: an illusion. Something tailor-made for media consumption.

But I’m still going to enjoy it while I can!

China is Forbidding Popular News Agencies From Pursuing Original Reporting

Xi Jinping reportedly demanded “absolute loyalty” from journalists at state-run news agencies during a highly-publicized propaganda tour of various newsrooms.

China isn’t, ahem, exactly known for championing the freedom of its press. But current events are about to become even more obfuscated in a country that already ranks 176 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Border’s Press Freedom Index.

Four of the country’s largest independent online news providers – news agencies that are not the official mouthpieces of the Communist Party – have been ordered to shut down or severely tone-down their original reporting in the run-up to a meeting of the Communist Party Congress next year. As several news outlets have reported, the Chinese government has had a penchant for seriously enhancing its internet censorship during important political meetings  or events ever since Xi Jinping took over as party leader in 2012 . I can personally attest to this; during the Lianghui earlier this year I was unable to use my VPN to access the uncensored internet for at least two weeks.

Under Xi, press freedom (whatever little there was) has dwindled and several journalists have either been intimidated, jailed or deported for questioning or defying regulations set by the Communist Party.

The most concerning part about this is that most Chinese citizens will never know this is taking place, because they are unable to access uncensored information on television or on the internet.

Actually, some of them do know. But it’s such a commonplace aspect of life in China that it’s difficult for people to get worked up about it. As one of my students told me, he “already doesn’t trust” CCTV (the country’s state-run television network) and he isn’t surprised the government is trying to withhold information from the public. “This is China,” he simply told me.  What else would you expect?

Sitting in this modern Shanghai café, full of people holding luxury-brand shopping bags and sipping cappuccinos, it can be easy to forget that this society exists under an iron-grip of information control.

It’s also concerning to see how distractions – smartphones and streaming television shows and shopping – really do stop people from asking questions. For many Chinese people, life now is better than it has ever been. Considering the turmoil of the past century, it’s not difficult to understand how having a full stomach and money in the bank trumps the desire for freedom of information.

It’s a slippery slope. And speaking of “trump” – I honestly believe that this level of information control would be pursued by the Republican presidential candidate who shall not be named with a capital “T.” The thin-skinned man, who supposedly loves everything about the United States Constitution except the First Amendment, has repeatedly expressed desire to curtail press freedom. You know, so the big-bad journalists don’t hurt his feelings.

If for some godforsaken reason (like if the entire American population decides to drop acid on Election Day) he makes it to the White House, you know he’s going to be looking to Xi for some management tips.