Prominent Chinese Environmentalist Ma Jun Visits Chicago

Ma Jun Being Interviewed
Photo at top: Ma Jun, right, is interviewed at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Nov. 16. (Siobhan Neela-Stock/Medill)

By Siobhan Neela-Stock
Medill Reports


a Jun, a prominent Chinese environmentalist and former journalist, achieved the unimaginable in 2013.

He, along with 25 other NGO partners, convinced the Chinese government to release real-time online monitoring data on the 12,000 largest factories operating in China. This was the first time this information had been made accessible outside of the government.

Once the government released the data, Ma’s nonprofit, The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, created in 2006 and based in Beijing, sifted through and analyzed the data, which Ma said was spread across multiple government databases.

This process eventually led to the Blue Map app. The mobile application was created to empower ordinary people in China by making air and water pollution data accessible and easy to read. The app goes a step further, as it encourages users to share their thoughts on the weather and report polluted rivers to governmental ministries.

Ma was invited to The Chicago Council on Global Affairs as the 2017 Dr. Scholl Foundation Visiting Fellow on U.S.-China Relations. Each year, the Council selects a fellow from China or an expert from a prominent Chinese institution to speak with thought leaders, universities and organizations in Chicago. He spoke to a crowd at the Council on November 16.

Dressed in a black blazer and white shirt, Ma sported a serious but hopeful expression as he talked about the challenges China faces when it comes to pollution. “In more recent years, the air pollution, the smog, have really become a wake-up call to many urban residents,” he said. “I think people when they combine their own sense of the pollution to the data, it’s actually really helped to inform and empower them.”

Pollution in China causes 1.6 million premature deaths every year, according to a scientific paper by authors from Berkeley Earth. The research organization, based in Berkeley, California, analyzes environmental issues and acts independently of government and industry policies. The paper was accepted for publication by PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science, in August 2015.

Ma said the Chinese government has come a long way regarding their commitment to curb pollution.

“The very fact that China decided to allow this real-time disclosure to happen is a sign of a political will,” he said. By disclosing this data to the public, polluting factories can no longer break laws and escape the consequences as they did before, he indicated.

Over the past few months, China temporarily shut down about 40 percent of its factories. Environmental bureau officials have handed out fines and jail sentences to officials at more than 80,000 factories in China.

Property developers in China are using IPE’s data to both their own and the environment’s benefit. Ma referenced a property developer group that decided to green their sourcing of iron, steel, cement and glass with the help of his nonprofit’s data.

Ma Jun Group Photo

From left to right: Ma Jun with Medill graduate students Siobhan Neela-Stock and Kate Cimini, and Northwestern Professor Bob Rowley. (Siobhan Neela-Stock/Medill)

The implications of this data go beyond holding polluting industries responsible, Ma said.

Now, people can differentiate between smoggy days and days with natural fog. As a result, school children are no longer forced to exercise outside when it is smoggy, he said.

The Chinese Minister of Environmental Protection Li Ganjie announced last month that the Chinese government is committed to lowering PM 2.5 to 35 micrograms by 2035. The World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines call for concentrations of no more than 10 micrograms.

PM, or particulate matter, is found in the air and is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets. The particles can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals. PM 2.5 is particularly worrisome as it is small, each particle with a diameter of about 2.5 micrometers or smaller, and can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and even into the bloodstream.

In 2011, Beijing and its surrounding areas experienced a stretch of smoggy days. This led to internet protests against the government and a demand by the public for information to explain the smog, Ma said. That year, hundreds of flights were canceled because of the pollution.

Despite ubiquitous images of Chinese people wearing masks and city skylines obscured by smog in China, Ma is hopeful about the future. “If they [the Chinese government] can follow step by step, then they can solve the problem,” he said.