For more than two weeks, 23 Chinese cities have been under a red alert warning citizens to take extreme precautions in light of a toxic smog that has invaded their territories.
The smog cloud carries more than 300 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter, which is hazardous to human health.
Netizens have started calling the suffocating air “the new normal”, a dark comedic reference to the political term used by Chinese President Xi Jinping in recent years to describe the country's slowed economic growth.
The air pollution is linked to China's unrestrained pursuit of development, which has driven the country's gross domestic product (GDP) up in the past decade. But this model of debt-driven grown has also resulted in a banking crisis, with the national debt now worth 255 percent of China's GDP at the end of 2015. Exports remain weak, resulting in the yuan’s depreciation and capital flight.
As the government clings to state-owned enterprises for stability, the business environment remains unfavorable, and many have decided to invest elsewhere.
Crackdown on NGOs, journalists and lawyers
While actual smog looms over northern and central mainland China, affecting tens of million people as winter comes, some news commentators fear that the political smog plaguing the country is even more worrisome.
To prevent the economic crisis from bleeding into the political realm and threatening China's single-party regime, the government enacted a new counter-terrorism law, a cybersecurity law and a foreign NGOs management law, all in 2016. The crackdown on civil rights has rarely been so heavy-handed.
A large number of human rights lawyers, who have defended citizens’ rights in accordance with Chinese law, have been arrested and detained. Some have been charged and convicted with subversion. A number of them, including lawyer Wang Yu, were forced to make public confessions that their work had been sponsored by foreign forces.
Most recently, Christian lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who had been campaigning for the release of his colleagues in the profession, was detained.
Journalists and citizen platforms have also experienced increased suppression. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 38 journalists in China were in jail in 2016. In July, the founder of a protest reporting site “Not in the News” was arrested and charged with “picking quarrels.” In November, an independent journalist who worked for the award-winning news site 64 Tianwang, Huang Qi, was arrested and is now facing charges of leaking state secrets.
In addition to the threats of arrest and prosecution, independent journalists have had to fight all kinds of censorship in order to get their work distributed. Even intellectual website Gongshi and reformist magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, despite being run by Chinese Communist Party members, couldn't escape the fate of shutdown and takeover.
The day-to-day practice of online content censorship and user account suspension on major social media platforms such as Sina Weibo and WeChat has agitated both independent journalists and party-affiliated news sites. Such censorship is inevitable as the authorities have banned news sourcing from social media platforms to prevent “rumors” and “fabricated news” from spreading and to prioritize news with positive energy — even if the news is about disaster.
Surveillance, censorship and propaganda
Activists and journalists are not the only groups targeted. Ordinary netizens also have been subjected to increased surveillance. People have come to see backdoors and spyware in their communication devices as a norm. Worse still, the real-name registration system equipped with massive surveillance technology has resulted in the abusive use and leaking of personal data.
Circumvention tools have been labelled as “terrorist software” and using them in sensitive regions such as Xinjiang can become an invitation for police investigation. Those who are outspoken are frequently bullied by “patriotic” trolls online and receive threats by party authorities in real life. Even making “toad worship” jokes is not allowed. And of course the Pokémon augmented reality game was a no-go in China.
Needless to say, smog itself has become a target of political activism and suppression alike, as citizen actions to raise public awareness about air pollution in Chengdu have become a target for crackdowns.
Despite all construction and industrial activities being halted in major cities under the air quality red alert, the pollution has not gone away and state-controlled media have started blaming restaurant cooking. Some netizens are arguing that the coverage is reflective of how much authorities want to deflect all attention away from any failures in their development model or environmental policy, just like when China made efforts to ensure flawless blue skies during the G20 Summit.
While ordinary people in China are wary of the toxic smog, some adventurers are fearless, like Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg who dared to jog in smoky Tiananmen Square while in Beijing — and inspired love and memes on China's Internet in doing so.
Hong Kong's autonomy under threat
The political smog has not only affected mainland China, but also overseas Chinese societies, in particular Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the mainland.
Hong Kong’s autonomy under the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” as written in the Basic Law, the city’s constitution, has continuously been undermined by Beijing. The year began with the news of the abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by mainland authorities. The latest blow has been Chinese authorities, in an unprecedented move, offering up their own interpretation of the Basic Law over two Hong Kong lawmakers’ inauguration oaths. Leung hung-hang and Yau Wai-ching pledged allegiance to “the Hong Kong nation” and called China “Shina” — a derogatory term used by Japan during the Second World War.
While Beijing claimed that their interpretation of law was to stop the independence movement from taking root in Hong Kong, the likely consequence is that more pro-democracy lawmakers will be disqualified for altering the wording of their oaths or displaying political slogans during oath-taking.
Following the disqualification of Leung hung-hang and Yau Wai-ching seats in the legislature by a local court, the Hong Kong government appealed to the court to disqualify four other pro-democracy lawmakers, including veteran activist Leung Kwok-hung, student leader Law Kwun-chung, university lecturer Lau Siu-lai and university professor Yiu Chung-yim. If the government wins the above four cases, more pro-democracy lawmakers will probably find themselves in the queue for disqualification.
Funny enough, it's not only the pro-democracy camp that finds itself threatened with disqualification. The city’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has also been ”disqualified” from running for re-election in May. Apparently, Beijing has plenty of loyalists in Hong Kong, and if giving up an unpopular one will help unite the pro-China camp, why not?