Transparency Can be Painful When You’re Not Prepared

There can be fewer examples of an “open secret” in China than the worsening air quality levels in China’s major cities.

For a period, this “open secret” was one that was acceptable by all because of the promise of better days, but following the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai EXPO the air has only grown worse in both cities.  Not better as promised. Which has recently been exacerbated by the sudden realization that government reports were not exactly telling the full truth.

That while the government was “dedicated to transparency” and happy to promote the number of blue sky days in its cities (as a sign of progres), many of the claims were in fact being exaggerated.  A “secret” anyone with a VPN and following the US embassy Air Quality twitter feed was in on, but for others it took more.

And with the US Embassy’s data set painting a very different picture of the conditions that exist, and thus the level of transparency that really existed, Beijing was forced to announce that in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, hourly reporting would provide the full data set (including PM25 ) so that citizens would be able to see for themselves.  As is reported in the above clip.

But, even with this new information, it is likely that things are not only going to get worse, and that the pressure on officials to take action (i.e. quick and poorly planned action) will grow.  A quote from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Authorities in Beijing said last month they had met their target of “blue sky” days for 2011, with 274 days of “grade one or two” air quality compared with 252 days in 2010.

But the state-run China Daily has said that if PM2.5 were used as China’s main standard, only 20 per cent of Chinese cities would be rated as having satisfactory air quality, against the current 80 per cent. (emphasis mine)

Which leads me to a point.

Part of the issue we are seeing is clearly about reporting, and part of it is in the underlying issues that exist.  In China, where the economy is growing at levels faster than the control systems are designed to perform there are going to be gaps.  Gaps that can only be identified and addressed through increased data (and analysis), but this cannot be at the cost of the greater picture, and it cannot occur in a way that is destructive to the system.

For Beijing’s part, where this is going to get difficult is that rather than be transparent upfront and then building a system that effectively addresses the problems, it is now being forced into a position where it can only react (in the short term) in a reactionary/ ad hoc means.

.. and while this post is focused on Beijing, it could just as easily be focused on a firm who is outsourcing to China, a firm who has established a joint venture parntner, a firm who has invested into an early stage Chinese firm, a firm who sells to China’s markets through distributorships ..

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