China state media under fire for arguing benefits of smog

BEIJING Tue Dec 10, 2013 8:00pm IST

A man wearing a face mask walks on a pedestrian overpass on a hazy day at the Pudong financial area in Shanghai, December 6, 2013. REUTERS/Aly Song

A man wearing a face mask walks on a pedestrian overpass on a hazy day at the Pudong financial area in Shanghai, December 6, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Aly Song

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Commentaries by two of China's most influential news outlets suggesting that the country's air pollution crisis was not without a silver lining drew a withering reaction on Tuesday from internet users and other media.

In online commentaries on Monday, state broadcaster CCTV and the widely read tabloid the Global Times, published by the Communist Party's official People's Daily, both tried to put a positive spin on China's smog problem.

The Global Times said smog could be useful in military situations, as it could hinder the use of guided missiles, while CCTV listed five "unforeseen rewards" for smog, including helping Chinese people's sense of humour.

While both pieces have since been deleted from their websites, Chinese newspapers lost little time in denouncing their point of view, in an unusual case of state media criticising other state media, showing the scale of the anger.

"Is the smog supposed to lift if we laugh about it?" wrote the Beijing Business Today, published by the city government's official Beijing Daily. "Smog affects our breathing. We hope it does not affect our thinking."

The Dongguan Times, from a heavily industrial city close to the border with Hong Kong, said CCTV's comments were so bizarre people did not know "whether to laugh or cry".

"There's nothing funny about the health dangers of smog," it wrote.

Even the main Xinhua news agency - which had initially picked up CCTV's commentary - weighed in, writing on one of its official microblogs late on Monday that it was "totally inappropriate" to make fun of air pollution.

Air quality in cities is of increasing concern to China's stability-obsessed leaders, anxious to douse potential unrest as a more affluent urban population turns against a growth-at-all-costs economic model that has poisoned much of the country's air, water and soil.

The top U.S. environmental regulator, on a visit to Beijing, said that China was trying to deal with the same sort of problems the United States once faced.

"We have to acknowledge that significant pollution challenges are being faced today in China," Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy told students at Tsinghua University. "The thing is, not too long ago, the U.S. faced similar challenges."

She made no concrete suggestions for sharing technology as her Chinese counterpart, Ministry for Environmental Protection head Zhou Shengxian, had urged on Monday.

Large parts of eastern China, including the country's prosperous and cosmopolitan commercial capital Shanghai, have been covered in a thick pall of smog over the past week or so, though Beijing's normally filthy air has been relatively clear.

Users of Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, also vented their outrage over the CCTV and Global Times' comments.

"The smog crisis covering large parts of China has revealed the failure of the government's development strategy of only going after GDP (growth). CCTV is shameless in trying to cover up for their masters," wrote Wu Bihu, a professor at the elite Peking University.

"The Global Times thinks that pollution will cause missiles to miss their targets ... How shameful! So that's what all this smog has really been about. People had thought it was just bad pollution...," state television in the eastern province of Shandong wrote on one of its microblogs.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard, Huang Yan and Natalie Thomas; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

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