The scheme was simple: Stuff cotton into air-monitoring equipment so that the air being read would be filtered and seem cleaner.
The people doing this to produce better — but false — air-quality readings in Xi’an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi, got away with it for months, until inspectors noticed irregularities in the data.
An investigation resulted in the head of the air-monitoring station in the city’s Chang’an district and several members of his staff being caught, according to a report by Chinese Business View, a newspaper in Shaanxi. Five people have been detained, including He Limin, chief of the Chang’an branch of the Xi’an Environmental Protection Bureau.
The report was widely reprinted online and discussed by internet users this week in China, and it raised questions about the accuracy of air-quality data gathered in scores of cities across the country. In January 2013, China began releasing real-time air-quality data from 74 cities and 496 air-monitoring stations. Since then, many more cities have been added to the system, overseen by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Citizens are focused on readings of PM 2.5, a fine particulate matter that is considered especially harmful because it penetrates deep into lung tissue and enters the bloodstream.
Analysts of the data say the vast majority of Chinese cities fail to meet air-quality standards.
The plot in Xi’an began when the station moved in February. At the time, the station chief, Li Sen, used the move to secretly copy the key to the station and a password for the station’s computer. Shortly after that, station employees sneaked into the station multiple times and stuffed cotton into the sensors, “resulting in abnormal data and affecting the normal operation of the national air-quality automatic monitoring system,” according to Chinese Business View.
The report said that station employees deleted surveillance camera video in March to ensure that inspectors would not see their actions.
As of Friday afternoon, neither the Xi’an Environmental Protection Bureau nor the Ministry of Environmental Protection had responded to faxed requests for comment sent this week.
Dong Liansai, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, released a statement on Tuesday saying that the news “should serve as a warning to officials around the country that the central government is serious about punishing environmental abuses.”
Xi’an is in northern China, a part of the country often afflicted by poor air quality because of the prevalence of industrial coal burning. To the east of Xi’an, Hebei Province has some of the most polluted cities in the country. In December, Beijing issued a red alert, because of what it called dire levels of smog. It was the first time Beijing had done that since the alert system was announced.
In northern China, urban residents brace in winter for the onset of an “airpocalypse,” a term that designates a particularly bad spate of toxic air days. One of the worst ones took place in January 2013. That spell of bad air was so intense that it prompted an increased consciousness of smog and its health consequences among many Chinese, and the government allowed the state news media to publish many more articles on the nation’s air-quality problems.
In February 2015, Chai Jing, a former journalist for China Central Television, the state network, posted online an independent documentary on air pollution, “Under the Dome.” The documentary drew hundreds of millions of views in four days and became a rallying point for those worried about toxic air, but censors forced Chinese websites to take the film down. Since then, Ms. Chai has not spoken publicly or made any public appearances.
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