The Chinese government has now relented and decided to give public access to official data on smog-related fine particles called PM2.5 -- in 2016.
In the last few weeks there has been growing debate between environmental authorities and increasingly environmentally aware citizens about China's air quality and now residents will have to wait even longer to know what kind of air they are breathing.
This delay in revealing the truth only shows Beijing's credibility is eroding faster. Perhaps the government wants the next five years to buy some time to clean up the air...
Even Premier Wen Jiabao, Vice-Premier Li Keqiang and Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian have acknowledged the failure to include PM2.5 readings, sparking even greater distrust of the government's pollution readings.
"It's not that mainland cities lack the technical capacity to monitor PM2.5, or that the public is raising unreasonable demands for pollution data that the government has yet to grasp," said Wang Yongchen, founder of Beijing NGO Green Earth Volunteers. "It's all about transparency and the government's unwillingness to face up to the grim truth of air pollution."
Wang Gengchen, an expert on pollution from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly that the main reason for Beijing's reticence in releasing the air quality data was that it was too bleak and depressing to be made public.
He said air-quality issues such as monitoring standards and information dissemination "are not just about science, they are more about [mainland] politics".
And playing politics with urban air pollution is a powder keg waiting to explode since cancer replaced heart disease as the number one killer in the Chinese capital in 2007 according to the Beijing Institute for Cancer Research. One quarter of all deaths in Beijing are from cancer, while in Shanghai, the rate is even higher. Fudan University cancer expert Tang Zhaoyou says 80 percent of cancer cases are caused by air and water pollution and food contamination.
Mao Yu, a deputy director of Beijing's public health bureau, told Caijing Magazine that there was a startling increase in the number of lung cancer cases, amounting to 60 percent, which could be partly attributed to smog and other air pollution.
"Cancer is an environment-induced disease," said Dr Han Baohui, from Shanghai Chest Hospital. He explained there was an increase of lung cancer cases in non smokers, which further proves the link between cancer and environmental pollution.
In 2005 deputy environmental protection minister Pan Yue said that up to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases in Beijing were linked to pollution. In the latest figures that were released five years ago, about 358,000 urban dwellers in 600 cities died prematurely in 2004 from breathing polluted air, with an estimated health cost of 152.7 billion RMB. The severity of the smog pollution mostly from burning fossil fuels and other types of fuel, are linked to economic development levels, according to minister Zhou.
He said most developed areas in the mainland, such as the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta and the region covering Beijing and Tianjin have the highest concentration of fine particles. For a good half year, smog covers Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Nanjing, Tianjin and Suzhou.
A businessman named Shi Yuzhu who runs an online game operation called Giant Interactive claims that breathing polluted air in Beijing is apparently the equivalent to smoking 21 high-tar cigarettes a day.
He was citing pollution-monitoring data from Broad Group, a Hunan-based manufacturer of air purifiers that supplies the machines to top Chinese leaders. "If I live in Lijiang [in Yunnan Province] and smoke 20 cigarettes a day, the health impact is comparable to a non-smoker living in Beijing," he said on his microblog late last year.
One wonders if this comparison is correct and if it is, sounds like everyone needs to be tested for cancer.