WU WEN­CONG Not re­ally se­cret, but very ef­fec­tive

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - RE­PORTER’S LOG

Iwas over­joyed to hear I would be al­lowed to join an of­fi­cial “se­cret in­spec­tion” team. The idea was quite glam­orous: A world of cloak and dag­gers and un­der­cover James Bond-like ac­tiv­ity. It didn’t even oc­cur to me that this once- in- a- life­time game of shad­ows would end up be­ing so hum­drum and even mo­not­o­nous.

The “se­cret checks” are ac­tu­ally con­ducted very pub­licly. We just drove around the city, look­ing for chim­neys emit­ting col­ored smoke. When we found one, we es­tab­lished the iden­tity of the owner, made notes and took pho­tos. The only clan­des­tine part of the process was en­sur­ing that no one from the fac­to­ries that owned the smoke­stacks spot­ted us.

The cru­cial el­e­ment is the ex­pe­ri­ence of the peo­ple con­duct­ing the checks. Af­ter decades in the field, Sui Xiaochan ha­bit­u­ally looks for smok­ing chim­neys and dirty rivers wher­ever she hap­pens to be.

Sui, deputy head of the en­vi­ron­men­tal emer­gency and ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion cen­ter at the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Min­istry, can dis­tin­guish the main types of pol­lu­tants in chim­ney smoke with lit­tle more than a glance.

We wan­dered around Tian­jin con­duct­ing “se­cret” checks on a foggy day. Af­ter glanc­ing at a tall chim­ney she said was emit­ting yel­low smoke, Sui asked the driver to pull over. I was sit­ting with a China Daily pho­tog­ra­pher, Feng Yongbin, and we both craned our necks and stared as hard as we could, try­ing to find an an­gle from which we could see the fumes. All we saw was a chim­ney, which, con­fus­ingly, didn’t seem to be smok­ing at all.

Then Feng trained his cam­era on the stack, us­ing max­i­mum zoom. As we stared at the pull­out screen, we both “wowed” — a nar­row rib­bon of yel­low­brown smoke was in­deed ris­ing, but it was barely vis­i­ble against the gray sky.

The next day, Feng and I tried to lo­cate smok­ing chim­neys as we drove around the port city. I re­al­ized that although I visit Tian­jin at least three times a year, I had never no­ticed that it has so many chim­neys. Nei­ther had I ob­served that in good weather, it’s rel­a­tively easy to tell whether they’re puff­ing out harm­less white smoke or dan­ger­ous, odd­col­ored fumes.

I be­gan to pon­der: What if ev­ery­one took pho­tos of chim­neys, or what­ever pol­lu­tion source they see, ev­ery day, and then posted them on so­cial net­works? In that way, en­tire cities, or maybe even the whole coun­try, could pro­vide a record of emis­sions from, for ex­am­ple, spe­cific chim­neys, 365 days a year. White smoke means good; col­ored means bad. It’s an ex­tremely easy, yet ef­fec­tive, way of as­sess­ing the sources of pol­lu­tion around us.

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