Chinese authorities have cracked down on media reports about air pollution in the capital of Sichuan province after protests in the area were halted by the authorities over the weekend, according to a leaked notice circulating online.

The censorship instructions reportedly issued by the Sichuan Propaganda Department said: “Beginning today, all media reports (including subsidiaries, new media such as WeChat and Weibo accounts and apps) on winter smog and polluted weather must be strictly controlled.”

All reports must use official press releases from the governments of Chengdu or Sichuan province, and news outlets must not independently gather information or pictures, it instructed.

The message invited three Sichuan news outlets to report on the petrochemical industry and asked them to send drafts to the Chengdu Bureau of Environmental Protection for auditing. Other media which are not invited to participate must postpone their reports, it said. Petrochemical plants, thought to be a source of air pollution, were targeted in the protests.

The directive came after planned protests against air pollution in Chengdu were shut down by police over the weekend. The city was shrouded in heavy smog last week, at Unhealthy to Very Unhealthy levels according to US Consulate data.

A protester calling on the government to fix the smog problem. Photo: Twitter.

Citizens put masks on statues in the city centre, according to US-backed Radio Free Asia. Others posted photos of themselves holding up protest placards on social media. Local police parked police cars at a square in the heart of the city and prevented people from entering for several days afterwards.

Other messages circulating online appeared to show that the clampdown on information extended to schools in the area. One message to parents of second-graders at one school apparently asked them not to believe rumours about the smog, not to participate in gatherings, and trust that the government will do its part to combat the situation., a government news source, reported on Monday that the school issued no such notice.

Another photo showed a notice issued by a local police station to pharmacies, clinics and print shops, asking them to record the ID card numbers and phone numbers of anyone buying large numbers of masks or printing or photocopying materials with phrases related to environmental issues.

Artists hold a sit-in protest in Chengdu. Photo: Twitter.

A group of artists were taken in for questioning by police on Sunday evening after they held a sit-in in the city centre while wearing masks. One participant surnamed Li told state-funded outlet Sixth Tone that officers first asked the group to leave, but an argument broke out after one of the artists refused to show identification or put away his phone.

Eight of the protesters and two passers-by who had taken photos at the scene were taken away by police, he said. An officer told the outlet that all had been released as of Monday morning.

According to nationalistic tabloid the Global Times, one man was detained by police for sharing photos claiming to show a large crowd gathering at a local square to protest the smog. The photo was actually taken in 2012, it said.

The Sichuan government said on its Weibo account that it has blocked the man’s Weibo account from commenting or being followed for 15 days.


Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.