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Breathe In. Breathe Out.

Ma Jun aims to clean up the world's biggest mess. by Adam Minter
March 20, 2014

In winter, the Beijing haze is often so thick that cars will turn on their head lights to navigate at midday. Meanwhile, the sidewalks exhibit a post-apocalyptic vision: bundled Beijingers, heads down as they walk or cycle through the streets, their faces covered by surgical masks. Those who can afford better protection choose respirators that don’t look much different from what World War I troops used to ward off mustard gas. The precautions are understandable: One recent study estimated that air pollution was responsible for 1.2 million premature Chinese deaths in 2010.

Ma Jun, China’s most important and influential environmental activist of the past three decades, thinks it doesn’t have to be this way. “The conclusion I’ve come to is that the problem isn’t technology,” he says, “but lack of motivation.”

Ma Jun knows what he’s talking about. Over the past seven years he’s become an expert at “motivating” some of the world’s biggest multinational corporations to clean up their operations in China. His primary tool—his wedge—is transparency. It’s the belief that good citizens become stakeholders when they know what they eat, breathe, and drink. Yet he also recognizes that China has lacked that opportunity, primarily due to its political situation. “In the West, environmental transparency has been away to deal with pollution since the mid-1980s,” Ma says. “In China, though, we still need our system to improve.”

But that raises this question: How can activists like Ma Jun improve transparency in a country where the Communist Party maintains strict control over public records, the media, and, most notoriously, the internet?

The answer, perhaps ironically, is more internet, and lots of it. Consider the numbers: China has more than 500 million internet users, two-thirds of whom access it from a mobile device and most of whom use Chinese social media sites. (Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China.) The government filters and censors content, but, as anyone who spends time on Chinese social media can attest, the government is always playing catch-up with people who have good information that others want to read. The better and more credible the information, the more likely it works against the information controls that have prevented Chinese citizens from fully understanding the costs incurred during their spectacular economic development. For Ma Jun, his life’s work has become making sure that this information is available, and harnessing social media to do so.

It's no secret that the Chinese Communist Party has long prioritized economic growth over environmental protection. What’s less understood is that, until the early 2000s, it was a priority that enjoyed tacit and sometimes overt approval from hundreds of millions of Chinese understandably anxious to improve their lots after years of poverty and upheaval. For some of them, the trade-off has been worth it: Chinese life expectancy has risen, and incomes have increased from nearly nothing to levels that ensure opportunity and leisure—and lots and lots of material stuff.

Ma Jun’s entire career has been devoted to turning Chinese citizens into stakeholders in the environmental debates that should be taking place in their country.

Among that stuff, one will find a lot of cars. In 2009, China became the world’s leading market for cars and trucks—an honor that brings with it increasing levels of pollution. Nonetheless,despite the fact that a major source of Beijing’s growing pollution problem was evident in the city’s epic traffic jams, the government largely refused to acknowledge the problem. Weather reports on particularly hazy days would refer to Beijing’s “fog.” For those with little experience with China and the Communist Party’s control on information flow, this might sound preposterous. But not for people accustomed to it. “I mean, before social media and all of the data it has made public, we had this discussion,” scoffs Ma Jun. “Whether it was smog!”

Information control—and the opacity of information—was at the root of the problem. To be fair, data existed and was widely distributed, but it was the wrong data. In Beijing and across China, governments had established an air pollution index thatrelied on measuring particles between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter—roughly the size of dust particles stirred up by construction projects. That’s fine, but the PM 10 standard, as it’s known, doesn’t measure the particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that emerge from tailpipes and lodge in the lungs.The lack of publicly available PM 2.5 data, as it’s called, meant that, on hazy days when sensible Beijingers wore face masks, the city’s environmental protection department might report that the air quality was not only mere fog, but that it was also “good.” Without alternative sources of information and platforms for discussion, there was simply no way to counter the official narrative.

In many ways, Ma Jun’s entire career has been devoted to turning Chinese citizens into stakeholders in the environmental debates that should be taking place in their country. Born in 1968 at the height of the Cultural Revolution and educated in Beijing, Ma took a job in 1993 as an environmental reporter for Hong Kong’s privately owned South China Morning Post newspaper.

Ma’s newspaper reporting eventually led to a book, China’s Water Crisis, a 1999 classic that is often compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In it, he documents the impact of pollution and development on the slow, withering death of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, China’s two most important waterways. It’s a sobering and heartbreaking read. But it also had a weakness that Ma acknowledges today: “After I wrote the book, I had readers 

There’s no technology that can fix the damage caused to the Yellow River by China’s turbo-charged development. Likewise, activists can’t simply ram a law through China’s Politburo to make factories stop using the waterway as a drainage ditch. The solution that Ma’s readers longed for had to be something different, entrepreneurial, and subtle. Over time, Ma realized that the key was empowerment through knowledge. “At first, I just wanted access to information,” he explains, “because that’s the precondition for participation—to be informed. It triggers participation and action from stakeholders.” By early 2006, Ma knew what he wanted to do.

With a skeleton crew of three full-time staff members, he formed the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs and began culling public records nationwide for three categories of water-related information: water quality data, pollutant discharge data, and records of companies caught violating pollution standards. Much of the data existed, but it was scattered in local government offices across China, and had never been brought together into a central database. It was a massive project: Ma recalls his team going through 130,000 supervision records alone. “The data entry was very difficult,” he remembers, sighing.

In September 2006, version 1.0 of IPE’s water pollution map launched on the web. It was a revolution, allowing any Chinese citizen with an internet connection—and in 2006, there were millions with internet access, most of whom were educated, affluent, and increasingly fed up with China’s pollution—to look up where water contamination was occurring, how bad it was, and who was responsible. Large multinational corporations, previously held unaccountable in part because nobody in China had any way to track their environmental practices, quickly took notice. In particular, they took notice of the fact that IPE had located polluting companies in their supply chains.

So, even though, say, the Foxconn factory assembling iPhones might not be a polluter, the company supplying its components might be, and this information was now publicly available. “In China, it’s not big news that Chinese companies break standards,” Ma says. “But multinationals? That’s big news. They’re known for having higher standards.” He pauses. “They [the multinationals] were among the first to come to us.”

Bejing skyline

When they did, something called the Green Choice Alliance was in place to work with them. Formed in 2008, the alliance was Ma’s vision for turning data transparency into action. Companies that joined the alliance as corporate members committed to several pledges, perhaps the most important being the use of IPE’s database on polluters as a screen for suppliers. If a supplier is found to be polluting, the company that contracts them must commit to auditing them and to a mandatory cleanup.If the supplier can’t or won’t change their ways, the corporate Green Choice member refuses to do further business with them. Since Green Choice’s inception, Ma realized that, with enough members and enough concerned citizens watching online, it would be possible to transform China’s notoriously toxic supply chains.

Indeed, the concept has been spectacularly successful in shaming, and ultimately changing, polluters. Most notably, Ma wasable to use his data to uncover pollution in the supply chain offamously secretive Apple. In late 2011, Ma, utilizing his data and the power of social media, managed to generate a response from Apple—and an invitation to their headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. In 2012, Apple agreed to allow Green Choice Alliance to audit companies named in its Supplier Responsibility Report to ensure their compliance with relevant environmental laws.Apple’s willingness to work with Ma Jun won’t change China,but it is an important signpost on the road to a cleaner China,where average citizens are empowered by social media and raw,unfiltered knowledge. That combination—data and the networks to disseminate it—eroded the secretive culture of one of the world’s most profitable corporations and, slowly, it’s doing the same to the Chinese Communist Party.

Also in late 2011, right around the time Ma Jun was effecting change by delivering data to millions of Chinese, Beijing was undergoing one of the worst air pollution spells it had seen since the 2008 Olympics. Unlike past bouts, however, the public was well informed about this one, thanks to the power of social media.

Credit goes first to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which in 2009 installed a PM 2.5 air quality monitor and has been broadcasting the readings hourly via the @BeijingAir Twitter account. These readings were a revelation, especially compared to the far less accurate PM 10 readings the Chinese government had used or years. Some days, “good” air days turned out to be, in fact, “good;” more often than not, though, they turned out to be “unhealthy” or worse.

Still, the data wasn’t widely disseminated, due to China’s decision to block Twitter entirely in mid-2009. But the low profile was short-lived, and credit for that can be given to the development of China’s smartphone market and the explosive growth of Sina Weibo, the country’s answer to Twitter and Facebook, which had more than 500 million users at the end of 2012. In November 2011, Zhang Bin and Wang Jun, two recent college graduates in Beijing, formed Fresh Ideas Studio, with the plan of building software for the mobile web. “At that time the air quality was becoming a public issue,” Wang said via email. “So we decided to build an app about it.”

They couldn’t have foreseen a revolution. But, in fact, that’swhat their app helped create. The groundwork, however, was laid by Ma Jun and IPE, who years earlier had foreseen the potential power of data unleashed on the internet. 

Version 1.0 of the China Air Quality Index was released on Nov. 12, 2011. The interface was simple: It showed side-by-side air quality readings from the U.S. Embassy and the government in Beijing. For the first time, Chinese citizens were able to compare what their government was telling them with the far more accurate data collected by the United States. It was not a flattering comparison, and the gap—in this case the distance between the honest assessment from the U.S. Embassy and the incomplete one offered by the local government—spurred downloads. Truth, at last, was available to anyone with a smartphone.

According to Wang, the app has been downloaded 2.2 million times since 2011, with the heaviest demand coming during the winter months and the associated pollution spells. But download numbers alone don’t really measure the app’s influence. Rather, you have to look to social media. Early editions of the app included a function that allowed users to post screen grabs of readings to Sina Weibo; that function was used widely, most notably by the celebrity real estate developer Pan Shiyi, who had 9 million followers on Sina Weibo in 2011 and boasts 12 million today. The screen grabs were then retweeted by those followers, extending their reach to tens of millions of people.

“In 2011, the government said that its PM 2.5 numbers wouldn’t be disclosed,” Ma Jun says. In January 2012, popular pressure via social media (the “motivation,” in Ma Jun’s words) forced the government’s hand, and Beijing began reporting PM 2.5 data—something it wasn’t scheduled to do until later in the decade, if ever. As of fall 2013, 74 Chinese cities have joined in. “The case of PM 2.5 data is very compelling for explaining how powerful social media can be for changing the government policy,” Ma concludes.

Of course, data isn’t enough to clear China’s skies. But it is a necessary first step. An informed citizenry, after all, is an empowered citizenry. China’s autocratic government, ever-anxious about popular movements, has quickly moved to respond to the greater public understanding of just what precisely is in the air. In September 2013, China’s State Council issued the country via controls on coal emissions and vehicles, as well as other common-sense but difficult to accomplish means.

But what’s most remarkable about it is that it uses the PM 2.5 standard as one of its benchmarks for achievement. Had Chinese social media users not embraced PM 2.5 in 2011, it’s likely that neither that benchmark nor the plan itself would have happened.

Ma Jun says it’s still not enough. On Jan. 1, China’s central government ordered 15,000 Chinese factories to begin real-time online disclosure of their pollution. Ma, to a large extent, deserves credit for this major step in industrial and government transparency on one of China’s most pressing issues. But mere disclosure isn’t enough: Ma is working on studies and, he hopes, a phone app to make the data more accessible to a wider population. His philosophy is simple and straightforward: If a factory must inform the public, hourly, what it’s spewing into the air, it is likely to become a cleaner factory. “Of course social media plays a role,” he says. “It’s the highest level of influence.”

Photos by James Wasserman