BEIJING -- At lunch, a slightly built man named Ma Jun hunches over his iPad. The screen is cracked, but you can still see what he is showing you: a small but potentially crucial early step in China's monumental struggle with pollution.
With masses of data wrested from government records at all levels, and with reports from and about major companies, Ma has created easy-to-use, simply designed real-time apps that show:
- A weather map-like display of particulate pollution levels in 300 cities throughout China on an hourly basis
- A map of the power plants and factories that are prolific sources of pollution of all kinds in China, and how well they are doing in meeting government standards
- A constantly updated list of companies ranked in order of how transparent and cooperative they are on environmental issues, and how well they monitor their manufacturing processes and those of their suppliers.
The apps are available for Android, and are coming soon to the iPhone.
"We hope that transparency will help people and get them involved," Ma explained. "There are tough environmental laws on the books, but they are not enforced, especially at the provincial and local level. If we can show people what is happening, they can begin to take action."
By his reckoning, some of the best corporate citizens in China include Apple, Walmart and General Electric. Some of the worst include Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria's Secret and J.C. Penney.
Apple used to be one of the worst, he said, in terms of transparency, cooperation and monitoring, but they have had a corporate change of heart that's since vaulted them to the top.
China's environmental problems are obvious and well known, but so gargantuan that they still have the capacity to shock.
The economy's rampant industrial growth is largely powered by coal, which has turned the air in China's cities into a visible soup of carbon and sulfur, mixed with microparticles that are especially dangerous to the lungs and cardiovascular systems of children and the elderly.
The situation is so bad that Ma's first idea was simply to provide what amounted to a health service for city folk: a handy way they could use their smartphones to see whether it was OK for their children to go outside to play soccer.
But the notion was consistent with a larger and more powerful force taking hold in China on environmental and other issues: the Internet's ability to influence a government that is autocratic, but in its own way responsive.
Ma's system is drawing volunteers and data-seekers to his cause. Even provincial governments, though often resistant to change and beholden to the newly thriving corporate manufacturing sector, have decided that it is smart politics to play ball.
Corporate and political corruption is rampant in China. But the country invented bureaucracy millennia ago, and it turns out that it possesses substantial and often valuable data.
Ma says he has amassed 140,000 records of pollution cases and other material.
He began his effort in 2006, but the turning point, for him and the government, came in 2011, after a series of particularly severe air pollution alerts in Beijing and other cities. The leaden air, a thick brownish yellow, forced people indoors for days on end.
At the same time, a series of environmental disasters around the country were getting increasing attention, the news spread by social media word-of-mouth too powerful and too widespread for the government to censor.
And, said Ma, it seems clear that the government itself has realized that pollution is a greater threat to the long-term health and stability of the country than whatever short-term political damage the government might suffer from being more candid.
"This is a long-term issue in so many ways," said Ma. "It is a health issue, and a cost issue. If more people get lung cancer and other ailments, it will cost the state more money in the long run."
And environmental activism is not an obvious and direct threat to the rule of the Communist Party, or to China's sense of how it wants to run things. "It doesn't attack the system directly, so it can be tolerated, even encouraged," a local political activist told me privately this week.
Ma's earlier concern was water pollution, which he sees as a much more difficult problem than air pollution. "If we do the right things we can turn the sky blue again," he said. "But water pollution, especially in aquifers, can be irreversible."
Ma wrote a pioneering book about water pollution in China more than a decade ago, and went on to study at the law and forestry schools at Yale.
He realized that the American system allowed environmentalists and individuals harmed by pollution to sue those responsible, and that the courts were a major enforcement tool.
He says he wants to do the same thing in China, if and when the Chinese court system achieves the kind of independence that would allow it to take on entrenched local and provincial power.
In the meantime, he will work to provide real-time information about pollution and polluters.