A man has been detained for five days by police in the capital of China’s Sichuan province, after posting a warning about air pollution on social media during a period of severe smog last month.

The Chengdu Commercial Daily, a government news source, reported that a 29-year-old man was put in administrative detention by the Chengdu police for five days, beginning on January 13. He allegedly posted false information that circulated on social media platforms Weibo, WeChat and QQ.

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Screenshot of the circulated warning.

“The Chengdu Meteorological Bureau has issued the first ever red air pollution warning in Chengdu’s history!” the warning read. “Over the next 24 hours, the city will suffer the heaviest smog in its 2,000-year history! The AQI [Air Quality Index] will exceed 700, and in some areas, it will exceed 800, the level [causing] lung cancer!”

The message, which was reportedly circulated on the afternoon of January 5, advised people to wear a mask over the following three days.

Red alert

At 4:10pm on January 5, the Chengdu Meteorological Bureau issued a red alert, China’s most severe pollution warning. It was lowered to an orange alert at 4:20pm on January 6.

Three government departments in Chengdu then issued a statement with media outlets in the city in order to “refute rumours.” They claimed that the AQI in Chengdu has never exceeded 500.

They also said the claim that Chengdu would suffer “the heaviest smog in its 2,000-year history” was inaccurate, because China’s standards for air pollution were only developed in 2006.

Artists hold a sit-in protest over smog in Chengdu. File photo: Twitter.

The man who accused of posting the warning message, surnamed Lan, was subsequently detained for “spreading rumours” and “disturbing public order” under the Public Security Administration Punishments Law.

Shu Xiangxin, a Shandong province-based lawyer, told the US-based Radio Free Asia that the decision to detain Lan was ridiculous: “Constructive criticism should not be treated as spreading rumours… this greatly harms freedom of speech.”

The Chengdu Commercial Daily added that local police detained one person for advertising real estate and warned two others for promoting air purifiers using “false information” related to pollution.

Censorship of pollution reports

The incident came after reports that the Chinese government had stopped local meteorological bureaus from issuing smog alerts in mid-January, moving the task to one central department.

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

In December, the Sichuan Propaganda Department had also reportedly prohibited local media from independently gathering information or pictures of winter smog and pollution.

During the same month, Chengdu police also stopped planned protests in the city centre against air pollution.

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.