In the Air

China’s environmental journalists must withstand an insidious system that is at once supportive and oppressive

Qilai Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Xiamen, a port city on the Taiwan Strait, sits on an island with white sand, mangoes, and tropical mist. The parks are lush with green. Flame trees bloom red in summer. Everywhere there are banyan trees—their canopies wide, their aerial roots hanging down like trunks; it’s said that a single banyan tree can be a forest. Locals call Xiamen “the garden city.” So in 2007, when news surfaced of a chemical plant coming to town, ten thousand residents assembled, wearing yellow ribbons and chanting, “Preserve Xiamen!”

A Taiwanese company called the Xianglu Group was preparing to produce paraxylene, known as PX, used to make polyester fiber and plastics. At the time, China’s five-year plan called for the development of seven major PX projects, including one in Xiamen’s Fujian Province. China had just become the greatest carbon emitter in the world, and soon it would be the largest PX producer. The economy was on the rise, but environmental information was hard to come by. When the PX plant was under review—by Communist Party officials who stood to gain financially—local outlets did not report a word of it. Eventually, a chemical biology professor at Xiamen University learned of the plans and waged an opposition campaign, prompting a story in China Business, a Beijing-based publication. A blogger named Lian Yue picked up the story and went on to disseminate more information, drawing attention to potential climate hazards posed by PX, as well as health risks, which can range from shortness of breath to cancer.

“Awareness spilled from blogs to street corners,” Elizabeth Brunner, an assistant professor at Idaho State University, writes in a new book, Environmental Activism, Social Media, and Protest in China. The internet, which is subject to less state control than newspapers, aired details that could not have appeared in print. The city grew anxious. A couple of days before the demonstration, the Xiamen Evening News was able to publish a story with comment from the Environmental Protection Bureau. “The gates were then opened,” Brunner writes. Local papers printed quotes from official sources, which online outlets discussed freely. By the day of the protest—June 1—press had gathered from near and far, including reporters from the United States, covering an unprecedented scene. “I know how bad the environment would be because I was from a heavily polluted city and I still suffer from lung problems,” a demonstrator told the South China Morning Post. “I don’t want my son to grow up in such an environment and get poor health.” Afterward, the government put the plant on hold.

As this was occurring, a young woman named Tori Zheng Cui was finishing college and seeking a sense of purpose. Two points on a test had kept her from her major of choice, sociology, and instead she’d been studying mechanical engineering at the China University of Mining and Technology. Her courses were in physics, chemistry, fluid mechanics: “Things I never thought I would ever use as a writer.” Her mother was a statistician working for a state-owned corporation; her father had been a middle school math teacher. He tried to train her to be a numbers person, she said. “But I don’t have the math gene.” She preferred the world of words and culture. She was eager to learn as much as she could, from any available source. “I watched The Apprentice in college in an English training program,” she recalled.

Careful observer: Despite censorship, Tori Zheng Cui reported on China’s carbon impact. Photo: Avery Belser

Zheng had spent part of her childhood in Xiamen, and she followed the anti-PX campaign closely. The blogs and “market” (or “qualified free media”) publications she read gripped her with a sense of possibility. China was still discovering the internet, and Zheng saw journalists tunneling through information barriers to deliver news to the public. “It was the golden age of China media,” she recalled. There was censorship, to be sure, but there was also a proliferation of new outlets. As the Xiamen drama unfolded, “I read all the stuff,” she said. “I was quite amazed, because that wasn’t something that happens a lot.” That fall, she enrolled in journalism school in Beijing.

In the years that followed, Zheng worked at CNN, The Guardian, and Caixin Media, a Chinese news organization, where she was a reporter and editor on the science and environment desk. She investigated human responsibility for climate disasters and the effects of pollution on a local and global scale. Coverage of the Xiamen demonstration became foundational to public perception of environmentalism in China; as Miao Ji, a fellow of the Institute of Asian Studies at China Foreign Affairs University, wrote, “The Xiamen PX protests were by far China’s most successful case of societal involvement in the environmental protection sector, and in all sectors too.” Even the People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, referred to the protest as a positive event. The story was turned over in different hands, and lent itself to different purposes. It was often cited as a win-win for both activists and the government, which had demonstrated an interest in cooperating with the public; journalists were granted an unheard-of degree of access to the state’s environmental assessments of the plant. Within a year, China introduced Open Government Information measures—an equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act—and the first agency to implement them was the Ministry of Environmental Protection. “There’s a lot of pent-up desire in China for information,” Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center, in Washington, DC, told me. “So there was a lot of excitement.”

Zheng, too, was excited. “I think that it brought intellectuals in China, who value freedom of expression, some hope,” she said. “But it was fated to be an individual case. It hasn’t become a phenomenon or a pattern of civil movement in China.” Nor was the legacy of Xiamen a total success: the PX plant was soon moved to another town in Fujian Province, where it erupted in two explosions in two years. (There were about a dozen casualties.) A year into the open government policy, the environmental ministry declared that it had addressed all requests for information, but in none of them, according to the Wilson Center, did the ministry supply satisfying explanations for its decisions. The thrilling prospect of an information doorway that journalists could pry open soon turned out to have been a mirage. Within a few years, as the internet fell prey to heightened censorship and Xi Jinping assumed the presidency, Zheng and her fellow environmental journalists saw an epistemological fog settle in, like exhaust from the factories that churned across China.

 

In journalism school, Zheng was taught how to conduct interviews and write a lede. She was also obliged to take a course that roughly translates as Marxist journalistic theory. “The core of the theory is that the press is the throat, the tongue of the party, the nation, and the people,” she explained. “The party goes first.”

Chinese media is often described as “a dancer with chains.” In 2002, Eugene Perry Link Jr., a professor emeritus at Princeton, wrote that China’s censorial authority is like “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier.” The snake rarely exerts overt pressure on editors, because it doesn’t have to; “everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments.” Karoline Kan, an environmental journalist in Beijing, told me, of the government’s restrictions, “It’s like a big database of words and terms. You are not given a book. But if you live in China long enough you would know what would be troublemakers.” Turner recalled a Chinese journalist telling her, “During my reporting, I step on people’s toes. Then I scurry back and see if it was too much. And then I go back for more.”

The Central Propaganda Department, headquartered in Beijing, is the ultimate overseer; there are also local authorities, who install in-house censors in newsrooms. The system is full of mind-bending contradictions. A guiding principle is that all party-related information is secret unless officials say otherwise. But, Turner said, “What’s secret and what’s not secret gets tricky for journalists.” Newsrooms are forbidden from picking up unauthorized information from foreign media. On a weekly basis, the propaganda department may send out a list of things that journalists should and should not report on. “They will come and visit your editor if your guys aren’t doing a good job,” Turner added. (After the outbreak of the coronavirus, for instance, censors directed outlets to focus, somehow, on positive news.) Occasionally editors try to argue, but they inevitably come around. They must; the alternative can be frightening to contemplate. As Evan Osnos, of The New Yorker, has written, “A publication’s first offense usually draws a warning ‘yellow card,’ as in soccer. Three yellow cards in one year, journalists say, and a paper or magazine is shut down.”

Or worse. “I think, globally, journalism is a risky business,” Ma Jun, one of China’s most prominent environmentalists, told me. China ranks 177th out of 180 on the Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders calls Xi a “predator” who runs “the world’s biggest prison for media personnel.” More than a hundred journalists and bloggers are in jail, many charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Most of the Chinese reporters I spoke to requested anonymity or said they’d have to self-censor, even if they no longer lived in the country—because they hoped to return, or feared for their families. One recalled a time when, after a story she’d written about the coal industry was picked up by the New York Times, she was phoned by a censor inviting her to tea, “peacefully or by force,” the caller said; when she arrived, she was asked about her work and warned, “We know what your husband looks like.”

“They really sometimes take personal risks when they do investigations, and it can be dangerous to them,” Ma said, of Chinese journalists. “Sometimes it can be direct, sometimes indirect—indirect meaning that it might not be something that would put your life, your safety, in danger, but if you offended some of the interest groups, you could be in trouble later on.” By “interest groups,” he meant government officials.

Zheng was aware of all that when she began her career. She thought she might want to work for a foreign outlet, since she spoke English well, and wound up taking an internship at CNN. Her supervisor introduced her to an environmental reporter seeking an assistant. He was happy to learn that she had a background in engineering, which would help her wade through scientific jargon. When she took the job, Zheng went out and bought an environmental-science textbook. Climate change wasn’t something she’d ever studied in school.

Zheng soon came to appreciate her beat. “In terms of trying to avoid censorship, we have slightly more space to do environment stories,” she said. “Because it’s not that important.” She went on: “Maybe most environment stories are not as striking or sensational as stories about injustice and inequality. So it’s not influential.” The task would be to report, not provoke, which was fine by her. “You can easily frame a story,” she said. “We can just show scientific facts. Or maybe we can address some of the government efforts in combating the problem.” She was not to say that China had done something wrong, but rather point out—gently—the opportunities for improvement.

“Environmental journalism at that time was a particularly active field compared to other areas of reporting—legal affairs, politics,” Ma Tianjie, the Beijing editor of chinadialogue, an NGO focused on Chinese environmental news, told me. “Environmentalism seemed less sensitive, less threatening to the party agenda. And in a sense, the party encouraged this kind of participation in environmental governance.”

Still, coverage had to suit China’s interests. “There is no evidence to show the authorities are telling the media how to report on climate change,” Jia Hepeng, a former journalist with a PhD in science communications, wrote for chinadialogue. Nevertheless, he went on, “the Chinese government has been effectively guiding the conversation.” China, under international pressure to reduce its carbon emissions, has typically been described by its national press as succeeding, as its ratio of CO2 to gross domestic product has started to decrease. “That description is not accurate,” Jia argued. The national economy continues to grow, which means that carbon levels are increasing overall. “When it comes to climate change,” Jia explained, “Chinese media reports consist either of government-led reporting on climate change events; Chinese efforts to respond to climate change; or rewriting overseas news reports on science developments, as the majority of climate-scientific findings are made abroad.”

Chinese officials would not deny findings recognized by global authorities. Facts could not be ignored. That left journalists to cover the science behind pollutants—sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide and nitrate contamination—as well as the health and environmental effects. They reported on the basics of the country’s carbon emissions, offering evidence of the connection to coal. They described the international policy landscape. “I worked on the scientific part, the factual part. I didn’t comment on policy,” Zheng said. The framing had to be just right. “We were encouraged to report on how much effort China has put into gathering an international alliance in terms of combating climate change,” she added. “We were encouraged to boost our own national image.”

At a climate conference that took place when Zheng was a news assistant at The Guardian, a debate ensued over the degree of China’s liability in the crisis. “The story covered in official newspapers was completely different from that in Western media,” she said. The write-ups in the Chinese press did not directly criticize China for failing to meet the same standards as the European Union, or for moving chemical plants within close reach of residential areas, or for ignoring the human causes of rising sea levels. They made note, instead, of China’s commitment to reducing fossil fuels.

“During my reporting, I step on peoples toes. Then I scurry back to see if it was too much. And then I go back for more.”

 

Some of Zheng’s first stories were about the sky. In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Olympics, the air was gray, thick with exhaust. A number of apps helped Beijingers monitor the city’s air quality day to day; one was called Airpocalypse. But the China Meteorological Administration, which put out the official air quality report, said everything was fine. “They had a very, very low standard,” Zheng explained. At the time, they measured PM 10 (particulate matter ten micrometers in size), but what caused the pollution was even smaller, PM 2.5. The smaller measure had been the international standard for years, though China didn’t recognize it. Ahead of the Olympic Games, the US embassy set up its own air quality monitor. “They published the result on Twitter every day, and it was so different from the Chinese report,” Zheng recalled. (That was when citizens of China were still permitted to use Twitter.) “People would translate the US embassy air quality data and publish on social media and use that as their guide as to when to go out or to wear masks,” she said. “A lot of people started to talk about it.” (The government eventually recognized the PM 2.5 measure, in 2012.)

“Compared to climate change, air pollution is a bigger issue domestically,” Ma Tianjie told me. In news reports, the emphasis was on incidents of pollution, dissociated from the rise of industry and the stakes for the climate. For editors, focusing coverage that way made sense: smog stories played better with readers, who were directly affected. Climate change, by contrast, was an international problem that hardly felt particular to China, especially when you considered that about 75 percent of emissions from China’s industrial sectors supported the global supply chain, as Ma Jun told me, serving American and European businesses.

Besides, the party has never denied climate change. With “beautiful China” pledges and an Energy Conservation Law and an “ecological protection red line,” the government’s message has always been: We’re on top of it. There are hardly any climate change skeptics in China; a national survey found that more than 94 percent of the country’s citizens believe the crisis is real. That may also be thanks to the absence of a coal industry lobby, since the energy sector is overseen by the state. “In the West, the traditional high-carbon lobbies, particularly in energy generation, are seen as being responsible for climate scepticism,” Jia wrote. “But in China the same industries have no effect on the media’s stance on climate change.”

The public is at once aware of climate change and satisfied with the government’s stated efforts to confront it: according to the Pew Research Center, residents of China are the least concerned about climate change of any nationality in the world. Journalists, limited in how much they can scrutinize the country’s climate policy, provide little reason to worry. “If you dig a little deeper and ask what climate change is,” Ma Tianjie said, of Chinese citizens, “their knowledge is very shaky.”

At times, Zheng and others found, certain government officials used journalists to push a climate-conscious agenda. The environmental ministry, in particular, was “the ‘nicest’ in terms of media relations,” Zheng told me. “Because they are relatively weak, among other ministries, if they really want to enforce a policy and they don’t see any hope inside, sometimes they are willing to collaborate with media by providing information, and even workshops, that educates them.” When, in 2014, China waged a war on pollution, cities were required to measure air quality and make the results available to the public in real time. There was a protest-control motive behind the policy—“China was going to be open enough that they keep people off the street,” Turner said—and if a municipality failed to comply, the environmental ministry was happy to send tips to reporters. “The journalists are very often a tool of central government to find out what the hell is going on in Dodge,” Turner explained.

That relationship was cultivated by Pan Yue, who was the vice minister of environmental protection when Zheng’s career took off. “Until his arrival, the environment agency was seen as toothless, but Pan astounded many observers by blocking billions of dollars’ worth of projects and warning publicly that the country’s economic development was in danger of hitting an ecological wall,” Jonathan Watts, the Asia environment correspondent for The Guardian, wrote. “He harnessed the power of the media by naming and shaming the worst violators, introduced a freedom of information law that obliged local authorities to release pollution data and encouraged non-governmental organisations and journalists to expose environmental wrongdoing.” Pan had been a reporter himself—first for Economic Daily, and then for the China Environment Journal. The level of transparency he advocated was unique among Chinese politicians. “Journalists know where to go,” Elizabeth Economy, the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “And they knew they would always be supported by Pan Yue.”

But Pan was eventually pushed out, his plans shelved. When Xi became president, he ushered in a new era. “Everyone’s a little bit more cautious,” Turner said. “It’s kind of like a Cultural Revolution lite.” In 2013, Xi’s first year in office, he went on a visiting tour of all the major newspapers and told them, over and over again, “Love your country.”

 

On February 28, 2015, a documentary called Under the Dome appeared on state-run websites. Created by Chai Jing, a former host on China Central Television, it told the story of air pollution through her perspective as a new mother, fearful of what the smog would do to her child. “I didn’t wear a mask on polluted days before,” she explained to viewers. “After holding a new life in my hands, I started to worry about the air quality.” Chai investigated what was in the air around her (fourteen carcinogens) and criticized Chinese oil companies. Apparently, she’d had the cooperation of party officials; the People’s Daily promoted the film. For days, everyone was talking about it. Many compared its impact to that of Rachel Carson’s revelatory 1962 book Silent Spring.

But within a week, as the documentary was viewed two hundred million times, the censors got mad and ordered that it be pulled from the internet. Suddenly, it was reported that the film—which Chai had self-funded—was produced with money from foreign NGOs. “In the beginning, everyone was praising it, saying it helped people to realize how important clean air is, and how big of a problem it is. But then later the censorship clocked it,” Kan, the Beijing-based journalist, recalled. “When China sees something that should only be managed by China, it doesn’t want other countries to get involved—even on environmental issues.” The reports about foreign funding were a pretext, intended to smear Chai as a tool of outside interference. “Sometimes your success can be your own problem,” Ma Jun told me. “For the media, usually you report news. But when you become the news, sometimes you can end up in some challenges.”

No one I spoke to seemed sure of what became of Chai, who has declined to speak with foreign media about the film (or anything) since. Ma Jun, who wrote a tribute to her for Time’s 2015 Most Influential People list, told me, “I hope she’s fine.” Kan could only speculate: “I think she’s in America, right?” Zheng didn’t think that was true. The best anyone could tell, Chai had gotten into some trouble with the authorities that prevented her from appearing on television ever again. Now she was lying low.

If the coverage of the planned PX plant in Xiamen showed how the internet makes the rapid spread of information possible, the Under the Dome episode demonstrated how quickly censors can use it to impose a lasting amnesia. Journalists like Zheng now had to be even more cautious, wary of any story that might stir up popular resentment. “Most environmental journalists in China want to do something, but they’re not saints,” she told me. “It is a job. If it costs too much, or you’re trying to achieve an unachievable goal, I don’t think that’s realistic.” (Of course, support of the party can be genuine. That has been true for many mainlanders covering Hong Kong; Lian Yue, the blogger from Xiamen, called the recent demonstrations “pathetic.”)

Sometimes it could be hard to tell where the line was. A few months after the documentary was banned, Zheng reported from the scene of an explosion at a chemical storage facility about a hundred miles southeast of Beijing. The facility kept hazardous substances such as dry nitrocellulose, a highly flammable compound that had apparently overheated. After the first boom came a second, far larger one, caused by the detonation of some eight hundred tons of ammonium nitrate; it was captured by a Japanese meteorological satellite. “The first day was okay,” Zheng remembered, of her reporting. “It was so huge, and so unexpected. The local propaganda department wasn’t very prepared for such a news flash.” But soon chemicals began leaking out into the sky and drifting toward the homes of thousands of people who lived in the area. Thanks to a few days of rain, the pollution turned into ominous white foam. Zheng’s reporting conveyed the gravity of the situation. At that point, Central Propaganda stepped in, demanding that her piece be taken down.

“Censorship made it harder, because a lot of the stories that would really attract readers were no longer allowed,” Zheng said. In time, environmental desks weakened and shrank. “Market” outlets began to fail—in addition to censorship, this happened for reasons familiar to publications in the United States that have felt digital media encroaching on their business models. “We’re seeing a steep decline of environmental journalism from its peak years,” Ma Tianjie said. “There’s a pretty severe brain drain.”

Some reporters turned their focus to new media—WeChat, Weibo, and an app called Today’s Headline, which is run by the company behind TikTok. Others left journalism altogether, Zheng among them. Her former optimism had dissipated. “I was looking for a change,” she said. She took a corporate job and, for a little over a year, got to know what it felt like to make decent money. She also learned what it meant to feel less emotionally invested in her work. “Journalism is very different from a regular corporate job,” she said. She missed writing enough that she spent a holiday working on a freelance piece.

After a while, she decided to pursue an academic path in the United States. Today Zheng, who is thirty-five, is a graduate student at Penn State, working on a doctorate in science communications, with a focus on the environment. Her aim, eventually, is to become a researcher and do freelance journalism on the side. When I met her recently for coffee, she wore a burgundy shirt under a loose charcoal-gray sweater, accessorized with a necklace of turquoise and purple beads. She had on burgundy socks that matched her top perfectly and white-and-green Adidas Stan Smiths, which looked a little worn. She said she liked central Pennsylvania, which had beautiful foliage in the fall and places to go on hikes. University Park, the town where the campus is based, is small but not too small, with some forty-two thousand people; when Penn State’s football team has a home game, the population swells to the size of Pennsylvania’s third-largest city. As we sat down to talk, Zheng presented me with a local delicacy: a jar of apple butter. “From where I live,” she said. “When I first saw it, I was confused: How do you combine apples and butter?” She laughed. “Then I tried it. It’s just like applesauce.”

Some things about America were exactly as she imagined. “I landed in Washington, and it was like The West Wing.” Other things surprised her. “I’m amazed by how central climate change is to the discourse here. That’s not how it is in China.” As she spoke, she pulled the ends of her sweater and tucked them into her hands, making a fist. There were unexpected political dimensions to life in the States, too. “I don’t think the US is better or superior to China, but there are values that I think many Chinese people want but they can’t have,” she said. She mentioned a quote she’d heard somewhere: “A Chinese person coming to the US is like a two-dimensional person coming to a three-dimensional world.” She added, “You never knew life could be this way.”

Zheng still follows the news from China. President Xi signed the Paris Climate Accord in 2016 and has since recommitted to it even after Donald Trump pulled the US out. “Man coexists with nature, which means that any harm to nature will eventually come back to haunt man,” Xi declared. “We hardly notice natural resources such as air, water, soil, and blue sky when we have them. But we won’t be able to survive without them.” In 2018 he reshuffled his cabinet and formed a new megadepartment, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment; Ma Jun is optimistic about what that means for the exposure of environmental violations. “At least on issues with a lot of consensus,” he said, “now the central government is so keen to bring pollution under control—there is a lot of space.” The ministry is handling its own communications, too, with some 1.8 million followers on Weibo, which Ma Jun views as a measure of public interest.

“Journalists are very often a tool of central government to find out what the hell is going on in Dodge.”

 

Twelve years after the protesters’ victory in Xiamen, the government’s authority remains absolute. When it comes to climate change, “It’s getting better in terms of education and awareness,” Zheng said. “But still there’s a long way to go. We are still in the phase of ‘Well, we want cleaner air to breathe.’ But they haven’t reached the phase where they will advocate for less carbon dioxide.” The country continues burning more fossil fuels than any other. In China, she went on, “We have rising sea levels on the east coast and more severe weather. More extreme hot days, more extreme cold days, melting glaciers. We have it all.”

Still, to Zheng, imperfection is understandable. “The fact is that China is still a developing country,” she explained. It ought to be allowed to make mistakes; in telling stories about its impact on the climate, she said, journalists need to have some patience. “People have just started to become aware of the environment as an asset in the past few decades.” That may be true, but there’s also a history, going back thousands of years, of China’s sense of connection to the natural world. Ancient Chinese philosophers and courtiers espoused the idea that human activity has consequences for the earth, and that how we engage with our environment reaches back into our lives, determining our fortunes.

I asked Zheng how she felt about the censors’ demanding that her air pollution story be taken down. She shrugged; she wasn’t bitter. “I don’t care about that anymore,” she replied. “My philosophy when I was a reporter was that I do my best, and I’ll let it be. When I was editor, I told my reporters, ‘You go, you write as much as you can—you write in your standard and I will edit in my standard. And then, if the censorship comes, we will adjust their way.’ But when we are doing our jobs, we do it for ourselves.”

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Betsy Morais is managing editor of CJR.