Beijing rain, sunset and morning

Three photos from our recent overnight embassy trip to Beijing. First, driving north from the Beijing South Station:
Two photos from the 15th floor of our hotel in the embassy district:

The Great Chinese Airpocalypse of Jan. 2013

(I insist you play this song while viewing this post.)

Our super-fast train back to Qingdao slithers out of the white muck
at the Tianjin South Station on Monday around 2pm.

One of the reasons we left Tianjin for Qingdao was the air pollution. It’s not that Qingdao’s air is good — it’s just not as apocalyptic (though labeling 175 “lightly polluted” is borderline Orwellian).

But in a curious and unhealthy twist of fate, we were visiting friends in Tianjin (30min fast train ride from Beijing) on the weekend of China’s recent Airpocalypse, when the API clocked in at 755 in the Capitol. Previously the API always just maxed out at 500: “Beyond Index”.

On a bad pollution day in Qingdao (API in the 300s) the mountains in the distance are gone. On a bad day in Tianjin, the building across the street looks hazy and the ones down the road gone. API 300 is horrid by North American standards; they’d be canceling outdoor events. But it doesn’t necessarily elicit comments in China, even though you can see it out your window, smell it immediately when you open your door, and, if you spend any time outside, feel it in your throat. The worst we’ve seen so far in Qingdao is mid-400s.

Over 500, however, is just… dystopic. Here’s a shot I took from a Tianjin parking lot during the airpocalypse, around noon:

And here’s a regional API screenshot from the China Air Pollution app:

We’ve done plenty of crying on the blog about the air pollution in China, and the result is a handy collection of links, organized by topic below. My favourites in bold.

Extracting honest numbers from the Chinese government:

Photos & Visuals:

Chinese Air Pollution & Your Health:


Pronounced: yǐ mǎ nèi lì
Means: Immanuel, “God with us” (我们同在).

It’s common for this to be displayed in big letters on the walls of Chinese churches. It’s a transliteration of the ancient Hebrew, so like the English transliteration it means nothing to people who don’t already have some background understanding. Example: 马太福音 1.23.

How the U.S. embassy in Beijing stuck it to the Chinese government over air pollution

Every year Beijing’s brutal air quality (and even brutal-er public reporting on it) makes international news. But this year Beijing finds itself with a domestic P.R. problem in which its own citizens are no longer willing to accept the gov’s Orwellian “blue sky days”, “fog” and “light” pollution levels. And a large amount of the credit goes to… the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

From Beijing Air Pollution Brouhaha:
“Since flights at Beijing’s airport have been canceled on any number of occasions over the past two decades because of pollution, why all the attention now?

“Several reasons… But the real catalyst for the current contretemps is the U.S. Embassy. If Beijing citizens were once resigned to living in this alternative state of reality, then that’s no longer the case. The U.S. Embassy has changed the way the game is played. On a daily basis, the embassy tweets data reflecting the real air quality for the area in which the embassy resides. Last Sunday, for example, as NPR reported, the pollution recorded by the embassy hit a level described as “beyond index.” The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, in contrast, reported the air pollution as “light.””

We’ve got lots of our own stuff on pollution in the Beijing area, including comparison photos. See our Pollution category for everything.

Air with Chinese characteristics is in the news again

Beijing’s air quality is making news rounds again, partly because some Chinese bloggers discovered a company that claims to provide air purification equipment for the homes and offices of government officials, adding clean air to a long list of resented privileges. It’s long been known that Beijing and other local governments drastically downplay the pollution levels to their own populations (see our own comparisons here and here). If you aren’t familiar with the remarkable air pollution situation in Beijing, Tianjin and much of the rest of China, here are three recent articles to catch you up:

  • U.S. Embassy air quality data undercut China’s own assessments
    “Perched atop the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is a device about the size of a microwave oven that spits out hourly rebukes to the Chinese government. One day this month, the reading was so high compared with U.S. standards it was listed as ‘beyond index.’ But China’s own assessment that day was that Beijing’s air was merely ‘slightly polluted.'”
  • The Privileges of China’s Elite Include Purified Air
    “But even in their most addled moments of envy, ordinary Beijingers could take some comfort in the knowledge that the soupy air they breathe on especially polluted days also finds its way into the lungs of the privileged and pampered. Such assumptions, it seems, are not entirely accurate.”
  • ‘Time Is Not Ripe’ for Honest Air Pollution Readings
    “state-run media did little to suggest Beijing was prepared to tackle its air pollution levels, among the worst of the world’s major cities. The state-run Global Times newspaper early this week reported a dense “fog” had descended over the capital. The local government was reporting “slight” pollution levels even as readings by the U.S. Embassy described pollution as “hazardous.””

For more of our crying about how unbelievably brutal the air quality is, with pictures to help you believe (that’s right: we can photograph the air), see our Pollution category, or check out these selected bits:

Happy Easter, China #6: analysis, first-hand accounts, and an indirect official response [Updated]

Recap: There’s an on-going public standoff in Beijing between a large unregistered church and the Chinese authorities. Trouble began years ago when the church crossed the unofficial line of tolerance by meeting regularly in a large group, rather than as multiple small groups. In April, with nowhere to meet due to continual gov’t harrassment of their landlords, they began meeting in a public park. The church wants the authorities to stop harassing their landlords so they can actually take possession of property they’ve bought, among other demands. Every Sunday since Easter, church members who are able show up for worship are immediately arrested, interrogated, and released within one or two days. The authorities seem to be trying to wait them out and wear them down, keeping the confrontation as low-key as possible by employing behind-the-scenes methods like house arrests, pressure on employers, landlords and family members (some church members have lost their homes and jobs), and even internal deportation.

I’ve been following this story with occasional updates/link roundups because I think it’s a huge story. Normally I keep news-related links like this out of the main column, but this one has too much content to fit in the sidebar.

Here’s the best content I’ve found since the previous update.

Outside analysis:
Sinologist Brent Fulton offers some analysis (

the public declaration of Sh0uwang’s intentions and the subsequent media attention that was drawn to the actual outdoor event triggered a very predictable official response. Furthermore, by demanding not only that they be allowed to meet, but also that the government guarantee in writing their ability to do so, the Sh0uwang leadership pushed the government beyond what its current policies could accommodate. Honoring Sh0uwang’s request would have entailed a broad policy change, with ramifications not only for Sh0uwang but for thousands of unregistered religious groups across the country. The officials with whom Sh0uwang was dealing had no authority to make such a decision.

“Such is the nature of religious policy and its implementation in China: accept the ambiguity of functioning within a gray area, and one is free to operate within certain limits; demand that the government define what is and what is not allowed, and the scope of one’s freedoms narrows significantly.”

From God, Policy & Law:

the authorities are aware that the overhaul of the religious policy and laws is long overdue as is its management of civil society groups, but with the up and coming change of the top leadership, this is not of immediate urgency to them.

First-hand accounts from church members and leaders:
A first-hand description of trying to visit the church’s pastor at his home:

“It turned out to be true that Tianming is receiving the highest standard of the house arrest as both the police and DSPS agents not only have the office desks, they also have foldable beds. It is said only security guards and doorkeepers are hired for regular members of the church and they have only camp chairs and recliners.

“For Tianming who has always been confident of himself, seeing so many brothers and sisters of Sh0uwang Church being persecuted when they are detained, interrogated, released each week and seeing so many people forced to move or fired from jobs, it is more miserable and harder to endure than if he experienced these himself. Now, the shepherds are separated from the flocks of sheep. The sheep are being beaten but the shepherds cannot stand out to fend off the blows. It is hard to describe in words how heart-wrenching it is to see all this happening around him.”

The church publishes a weekly letter, reporting what happened the previous week. Here are the latest two letters (translated), for Sunday #23 and Sunday #24.

A first-hand account of trying to meet for worship and being detained by police: Beijing pastor describes trying to get to church with police determined to stop her and This Is The Road We Have Never Traveled By:

I can’t agree with some of the things they have done, but I am aware of their limitations just as I am aware of my own limitations. Therefore, it is better for me to coordinate with them as much as I can. Usually upon their indication that they need to fulfill an order from their superior, I would always cooperate to receive their lecture. Even when … coming to ring my door bell at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, I still put up with it by talking to them; after being told by the locality police in charge of me that my outdoor worship on the small holiday of “May Day” interrupted his vacation with his wife, I later wouldn’t, without letting him know, have the heart of going on a trip during small holidays anymore, but would rather choose to go at ordinary weekends. None of us is the kind that wants to cause each other trouble, and by human nature we usually dislikes conflicts or tension.
I pr0test against the abuse of power… against the destruction of human relationships… against one’s personal interest being held over conscience… against unrighteousness and the lack of mercies… against the trampling and disregard of a human being’s dignity and rights.
It’s widely believed that the government has shown relative toleration and restraint towards Sh0uwang’s outdoor worship this time. In fact, the idea of toleration, only concluded after being compared to the extreme practice, is not at the level of righteousness, truth and law. As for the unrighteous and illegal behavior, all have got used to it and do not mind so much anymore.
I’ve tried my best to seek guidance through prayers and my conscience.

To those who don’t agree, I sincerely ask for your tolerance. May God let us know which path we should take, because this is a road that we have never traveled by.

The Official Voice:
Meanwhile Xinhua counters, indirectly, by providing the currently-prescribed official narrative of Christianity in China and the relationship between the gov’t and Christianity: Christianity in Beijing — Past and Present

Christianity in the capital of China has existed for a long period of time; its spread and growth has been closely linked with the fate of the nation.

Last month, hundreds of Christians from different churches in Beijing held a chorus of thanksgiving and tribute in the Century Theater, with the theme of “Going Together With One Heart.”

Through the chorus, Christian followers expressed their gratitude toward the Party, the government and society, said Cai Kui, chairman of the Beijing Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China (TSPM).

“In today’s Beijing and China, there is freedom in religious belief and a harmonious development of religion and society,” Cai said.

“Believers enjoy a happy and peaceful religious life. Different religions forge ahead on the correct path of adapting to socialist society and do their own part to build a harmonious society and promote social development,” he said.

I’ve found nothing else since April at Xinhua or Global Times regarding this situation (Global Times had a handful of editorials back in April, like “Praying for Trouble”).

Clarifying “illegal”, “underground” and “unregistered”
Groups like Sh0uwang are often described as “illegal”, “underground” or “unregistered”. But the situation in China is complicated, and each of these terms needs an asterix. I’ve not been careful in how I use them on the blog, so now I’ll try to set the record straight:

  • Illegal. Basically, yes, groups like Sh0uwang are illegal, though I’m not sure if there’s an actual law stipulating that all churches must join the designated “patriotic organizations” or not. Either way, that’s the practical effect. But local authorities throughout China, including Beijing, routinely give tacit tolerance to these churches, so long as they obey the unwritten rules and don’t cross the sometimes-moving unofficial line.
  • Underground. This sometimes suggests to people secret meetings and clandestine groups dodging the probing eye of the government. But groups like Sh0uwang aren’t hiding; they’re operating in full view of, and in contact with, the authorities in an evolving grey area of limited tolerance. Often this grey area requires that they keep a low public profile, but they don’t have to be invisible. Sh0uwang is apparently officially registered as a “social group.” But by breaking the unwritten rules (insisting on large, more conspicuous meetings) and by demanding official, written permission to do so, Sh0uwang lost the tolerance of the local authorities.
  • Unregistered.When people speak of “unregistered” Chinese churches (as I did in the first paragraph above), they specifically mean “churches that are not registered members of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (or the Catholic equivalent)”, one of the organizations under the Religious Affairs Bureau through which the Party exercises control over Christianity in China. Strictly speaking, Sh0uwang is legally registered as a “social group”, but they refuse to join the Three-Self Patriotic movement and submit to that degree of control. One compromise sometimes offered to non-TSPM churches is to register ‘in name only’ — a deal where they join the TSPM on paper but the local authorities leave them alone, so long as they don’t cause trouble. Sh0uwang has explicitly rejected this compromise.

So in China today you have everything from groups that attempt to be entirely secret and groups that are harshly persecuted, to groups that register with local authorities and operate openly but refuse to register specifically with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (or Catholic equivalent). Sh0uwang was in this second group, but invited harassment by refusing to comply with the unwritten rules and boundaries of the unofficial gray area of tolerance.

Interestingly, Sh0uwang apparently has an ‘overseas Chinese attitude’ toward gov’t restrictions since many of them have spent time in churches outside of China while studying abroad. This supposedly contributes to their willingness to break the unwritten rules and make demands of the Beijing authorities.

Previous Updates:

P.S. – Happy National Day, everybody!

House arrest with Chinese characteristics

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to visit someone under house arrest in China (who’s allowed visitors), here’s a translated first-hand account:

“I pressed 9 button for the 9th floor, someone immediately began to examine us with an investigative look. I avoided that suspicious eye-contact… As soon as I came out of the elevator, I was stunned as I was already facing a desk with an appointment book with visitors’ names and their IDs. Obviously, this place has been turned into a formal mini-office and I found this both funny and annoying. A policewoman stood at the side of desk and was ready for the confrontation. When she saw my eyesight turned right in search of Tianming’s door, she seemed to know that we were visitors instead of tenants on the 9th floor. So the questioning started…

“Tianming is receiving the highest standard of the house arrest as both the police and DSPS agents not only have the office desks, they also have foldable beds. It is said only security guards and doorkeepers are hired for regular members of the church and they have only camp chairs and recliners.
“For Tianming … seeing so many brothers and sisters of Shouwang Church … detained, interrogated, released each week and seeing so many people forced to move or fired from jobs, it is more miserable and harder to endure than if he experienced these himself. Now, …the sheep are being beaten but the shepherds cannot stand out to fend off the blows. It is hard to describe in words how heart-wrenching it is to see all this happening around him.”
[Link: Visit to Pastor Jin Tianming.]