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China wants its citizens to report each other for polluting

There’s no question about it: China is smoggy. Year after year, the number of days of unacceptable pollution levels in its largest cities goes up, and it’s starting to have troubling side-effects. The Financial Times reported last year that pollution has cut life expectancy in the north by 5.5 years; in January, scientists warned that smog was slowing photosynthesis in plants, thereby threatening the country’s food supply.

So it’s no wonder the Chinese government is trying to reduce air pollution, using everything from enormous water pistols to anti-pollution legislation. It’s even thinking about installing domes filled with clean air in Beijing for residents to cower under.

On 13 August, the Ministry of Environmental Protection decided to open a new front, and released a set of guidelines telling the citizenry how to reduce pollution. These include avoiding products with lots of packaging, turning down the air con and burning fewer things.  These instructions, it says, are “concise, easy to remember and easy”.

Should they prove otherwise, article 7 of the guidelines urges citizens who spot examples of ungreen behaviour to call a hotline to “report and prosecute” their neighbours.

How officials would take action on these calls isn’t clear from the document.  But the ministry itself is committed to doing its bit, and a press release promises to “post propaganda wall charts, play videos and invite representatives to participate in discussions”.

To give you a sense of quite how bad China’s air pollution is, this graph shows the average levels of PM2.5 particles – small pollution particles which have the harshest effect on human lungs – in the air across China’s five largest cities in 2013. By way of comparison, we’ve also included London and New York:

To put these numbers in context, according to a 2013 study in The Lancet, an increase of 10 micrograms per cubic metre can increase lung cancer cases by 36 per cent.
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