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Public Diplomacy and Air Pollution Problem: How the U.S. Used “Beijing Air” to Advance Its Soft Power in China
The Korean Journal of International Studies 20-2 (August 2022), 335-357
Published online August 31, 2022
© 2022 The Korean Association of International Studies.

Suehyun Jung [Bio-Data]
Received May 31, 2022; Revised July 19, 2022; Accepted July 22, 2022.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
This article argues that updated modeling of public diplomacy necessitates the identification and consideration of stakeholders in domestic politics, bureaucracy, and the target country’s public. The “Beijing Air” case relative to the three models of public diplomacy, namely, interest-oriented public diplomacy, influence-oriented public diplomacy, and value-oriented public diplomacy, revealed that the most far-reaching political outcome was achieved through value-oriented public diplomacy which considered the needs and priorities of the target country’s public as the main stakeholders. The U.S. Embassy’s publishing of PM 2.5 air quality data via social media platforms with the description, “Beijing Air” since 2008 has enhanced awareness regarding PM 2.5 among the Chinese public against a background of drastically deteriorating air quality and provided strong impetus for changes in China’s national air quality management policies. This in turn has increased the U.S.’s soft power by building a reputation for credibility with the Chinese people, which could ultimately lead to creating a more receptive environment for U.S. government policies in China.
Keywords : Chinese air pollution, PM 2.5, stakeholders of public diplomacy, public diplomacy model

A diplomat who was stationed in Beijing from 2010 to 2013 recalls a first-hand experience with China's severe air pollution:

“While I was stationed in Beijing in 2010, I regularly saw thick smog on the horizon in the evening. The locals called it “wu (雾),” Chinese for “fog” and they seemed to consider it a normal phenomenon. At that time, the only publicly recognized air quality issue in China was the yellow dust blowing from Inner Mongolia every spring. Ordinary citizens did not really question the air quality at normal times. Concern about fine particle pollution began to float to the surface of public discourse as the U.S. embassy began to collect real-time air-quality data from a monitor and to announce the data to the public. The ‘Beijing Air’ Twitter account and later smartphone app launched by the U.S. embassy were the first and only such tools that existed for a long while in China that provided information to the public about air pollution levels. To accomplish this, the U.S. embassy installed the monitoring facilities within the embassy compound. As the ‘Beijing Air’ app began supplying information regarding PM 2.5 levels in real-time and sending messages such as ‘wear a mask’ or ‘refrain from outside activities,’ the number of people wearing masks outside gradually increased. This was particularly the case among foreigners living in Beijing. There was a small lag in time, but soon afterward local Chinese followed the suit. [...] Between 2011 and 2013, there was a mass exodus out of Beijing by health-conscious foreign expats due to drastically deteriorating air quality.” (Jung 2018, 52-54)

After several serious air pollution incidents in Beijing in 2011, the U.S. embassy’s official website, its “Beijing Air” Twitter account, and later a smartphone app, had a tremendous impact on the Chinese public. They released the only scientific PM 2.5 figures available in China at that time (Grammaticas 2011; Kintisch 2018). The U.S. government's policy of measuring and publishing PM 2.5 data raised health concerns among Chinese people and resulted in a significant shift in China’s approach to air monitoring and management of air pollution in 2012. As a result, Beijing’s air quality has improved markedly with a 40% decrease in PM 2.5 levels between 2012 and 2018 according to the U.S. monitoring data (Bernicat 2020).

The “Beijing Air” case has been held up as an exemplary case of the power and influence of social media platforms such as Twitter on the Chinese social environment (Kay, Zhao and Sui 2015; Rajagopalan, Brook and Al-Kindi 2021). However, this interpretation could de-emphasize the deliberate diplomatic efforts made by the U.S. government in engaging with Chinese air quality issue. This case merits broader examination and needs to be redefined as a successful public diplomacy campaign by the U.S. government in China which yielded a tangible achievement in spreading U.S. values and affecting China’s national policies. Gary Locke, who served as the U.S. ambassador to China from 2011 to 2014, commented: “I’ve never seen an initiative of the U.S. government have such an immediate dramatic impact in a country” (National Museum of American Diplomacy 2022b).

Public diplomacy can be defined as the “art of communicating a country’s policies, values and culture to the people of another nation” (Graffy 2009). Public diplomacy has been understood as a means of promoting a country’s soft power which can be defined as “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment” (Nye 2008). Many policymakers and scholars as well as practitioners of public diplomacy regard it as integral to achieving a country's foreign policy goals and advocate the investment of significant resources to communicate with foreign citizens. Thus, public diplomacy cannot be solely seen as a form of communication but as part of the foreign policy toolkit which will “eventually help achieve foreign policy goals and advance national interests” (Sevin 2017).

This begs the question, how was the “Beijing Air” public diplomacy campaign successful in promoting U.S.’s soft power and what factors should the practitioners of public diplomacy consider in order to emulate this case? To address these questions, this article attempts to examine the utility of the “Beijing Air” public diplomacy initiative by adopting a single case study method. The unique case of “Beijing Air” can illuminate how one country can influence another country’s citizenry by means of public diplomacy and serve as a case study for its political and diplomatic utility in altering the policy orientation of another country's government.

Very few previous studies have adequately attempted to develop specific models of public diplomacy. For example, Gilboa (2008) employed five variables —major actors, initiators, goals, types of media, and means and techniques—to distinguish three public diplomacy models: the basic Cold War model, the non-state transnational model, and the domestic public relations model. Pamment (2014) established output models, outcome models, perception models, and network models as evaluation methods of public diplomacy. Sevin (2017) has proposed a public diplomatic approach based on realist, liberal, and constructivist international political theories. This article adds an accounting of stakeholder dimensions in analyzing public diplomacy following Zaharna (2011). This article further argues that new modeling of public diplomacy necessitates the identification and consideration of public diplomacy stakeholders.

Three stakeholder groups can be identified in public diplomacy: domestic politics which demands budget accountability for public diplomacy programs, bureaucracies who implement public diplomacy programs directly, and the foreign public who are the audience for various public diplomacy programs. Each stakeholder group can correspond to the three models of public diplomacy respectively: interest-oriented public diplomacy, influence-oriented public diplomacy, and value-oriented public diplomacy. These three models can expose conflicting priorities among stakeholders and explain why each public diplomacy program could yield different outcomes.


In practice, public diplomacy involves a range of activities, including educational and cultural exchanges, broadcasting, information programs, and transparent strategic communication campaigns. Additionally, public diplomacy enables communication with foreign actors that are not addressed by traditional diplomacy, in other words, with non-state actors such as individuals, corporations, and civil society organizations. That is, both diplomacy and public diplomacy are viable tools that countries have at their disposal in order to advance their national interests and to achieve their policy objectives (Sevin 2017). If diplomacy is the management of changes in the international environment through relations with foreign governments, public diplomacy is the management of the changing environment through relations with the foreign public. Public diplomacy has developed closely in line with globalization which has enlarged and diversified the subjects and goals of diplomacy in international politics. Non-state foreign actors beyond diplomatic personnel have become targets of public diplomacy, and the goals of diplomacy have concurrently become involved in protecting economic interests as well as attaining military security.

While diplomacy had previously overseen the promotion of hard power, public diplomacy promotes soft power by improving national brand image with citizens in target countries in economic, cultural, and diplomatic areas (Nye 2008). The soft power functions through “directly or indirectly transforming the attitudes of target audiences in foreign countries” (Nye 2021). At the heart of public diplomacy lies the implicit goal of influencing intergovernmental relations in certain areas of diplomacy through engagement with foreign citizens whose opinions, values, activities, and interests can sway the positions of their governments (Pamment 2012). In other words, public diplomacy programs can be deployed as a conduit to gain political influence which ultimately could be transformed into political outcomes that are more favorable to the initiating country, mainly through its influence on foreign public opinion, thus increasing soft power of the initiating country.

Public diplomacy started to receive renewed attention based on two phenomena. First, social media emerged in the early 21st century and promoted two-way communication. Taking it a step further, digital public diplomacy makes active use of such new communication tools and allows diplomats to reach out and directly engage with a target foreign public (Bjola and Jiang 2015; Jiang 2017 Ch. 6). For example, in China U.S., Japanese, and EU diplomats at the embassy level have creatively used social media and have managed to establish open communication channels with Chinese citizens, “especially in terms of agenda-setting and presence expansion” (Bjola and Jiang 2015). However, to reach out to the public, social media content should be both interesting and pertinent to the target audience. Another consideration is that a government “runs the risk of diminishing, even destroying” the appeal of social interaction through regulation (Dale 2009). Moreover, in order to initiate digital public diplomacy with a foreign public, the target country must have a sufficient IT infrastructure and media environment which is endowed with some degree of freedom of speech. For this reason, it may not be possible to conduct the same level of digital public diplomacy in China as it was in the early 2010s when digital media was developing rapidly and there was relative freedom to express opinions on the internet.

Second, non-Western countries such as China and Asian middle power countries such as Korea and India have shown a great deal of interest in public diplomacy and have expanded its use as part of soft power diplomacy strategies (Sevin, Metzgar and Hayden 2019; Ayhan 2018). In particular, as the U.S. made use of public diplomacy to cope with antagonism toward its regional policies and to shape public opinion in other countries right after 9/11 (Hoffman 2002; Edelstein and Krebs 2005), China tried to cope with the perception of the “China threat” via public diplomacy in the 2000s (Wang 2008). China invested heavily in building its soft power to influence foreign public opinion and compete with democracies in the realm of ideas by projecting power across borders in the 2010s (Walker 2016; Zhao 2019). While democratic capitalist states such as the U.S. have developed and invested in public diplomacy to bolster commercial interests by promoting their national images and brands in the past, authoritarian states such as China are now using public diplomacy as a means of establishing political legitimacy to maintain their regimes (Walker, Kalathil and Ludwig 2020). Projecting power by authoritarian regimes in a manipulative way through calculated investments over an extended period of time in the realm of think tanks, people-to-people exchanges, and initiatives in the fields of diplomacy, education, media, and technology was dubbed “sharp power” to differentiate it from soft power (Walker, Kalathil and Ludwig 2020).

However, attempts to change the perception of target audiences in a shortsighted manner could backfire. Moreover, systematically transmitting information with the aim of exerting influence could be interpreted by the foreign public as a form of propaganda, and “propaganda is not credible and thus often does not attract” and “sharp power is not soft power” (Nye 2021). Considering that many middle power countries are interested in the active use of public diplomacy as well, it is necessary to examine how public diplomacy can help achieve strategic goals. Nonetheless, democratic states also face pressure to demonstrate to their taxpayers that public diplomacy is capable of obtaining anticipated outcomes regarding awareness, knowledge, and understanding of issues as well as achieving substantial behavioral modification.


The stakeholders of public diplomacy play a very important role in its continuation. In order to successfully carry out public diplomacy, it is necessary to identify potential stakeholders and find a point where their shared interests and goals intersect within public diplomacy initiatives. Public diplomacy is relevant to a broad array of strategic interests and incorporates multiple stakeholders from both military and non-military interests, the Executive and Legislative branches, and the public and private sectors (Zaharna 2011). Three groups of stakeholders in public diplomacy can be generally identified.

Domestic political stakeholders are the first stakeholder group. In the context of public accountability and value-for-money policy evaluation, if domestic public opinion does not recognize a specific public diplomacy campaign, funding will not be set aside for its use. The billions that are allocated to public diplomacy programs nonetheless require the demonstration of significant and measurable return on budget expenditure to Congress and other important domestic political stakeholders (Brown 2017). Accordingly, domestic political stakeholders require the relevant bureaucracies making use of public diplomacy to undergo monitoring and evaluation processes to access whether public diplomacy efforts contributed to established national interests and objectives (Brown 2017). Furthermore, the “political winds” at times shape public diplomacy goals as well as budgeting priorities (Sommerfeldt and Buhmann 2019).

In addition, public diplomacy is linked to larger foreign policy goals established by officials in the bureaucracy (the State Department in the case of the U.S.), and public diplomacy is one tool deployed by the State Department to expand its influence in other countries (Sevin 2017). Thus, the bureaucracy, who plays a role in activating public diplomacy, becomes a stakeholder. Bureaucracies have a vested interest in sustaining public diplomacy, and foreign ministry officials have a stake in maintaining relevant organizational structures and working practices and expanding their budgets. On the other hand, bureaucracies can become obstacles in effectively conducting public diplomacy due to the tendency of bureaucratic institutions to be risk-averse and fear that any admission of setbacks might lead to the abandonment of public diplomacy programs altogether (Brown 2017). The existing practice of public diplomacy tends to focus on its engagement function and disregards its impact on international politics, primarily clouded by a “culture of reporting” (Gonzalez 2015). Practitioners sometimes prioritize data on the outputs of their projects, such as attendance numbers or media coverage (Sevin 2017). Such a pragmatic approach to public diplomacy evaluation and reporting culture are also observed in the design and execution stages of new projects which could cause public diplomacy to lose its foreign policy outlook (Pahlavi 2007; Pamment 2014). Thus, monitoring and evaluation of public diplomacy programs in a well-organized manner which motivates public diplomacy officers to engage with the foreign public, is an important consideration in maintaining and improving the quality of public diplomacy.

Finally, the citizens of a target country are important stakeholders based on their acceptance of the public diplomacy efforts. Viable targets in a foreign country may include civil society representatives, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, media and journalists, as well as experts across different sectors of industry, politics, and culture. Under specific conditions, the general public could be the primary target. Examples of public diplomacy activities are legion, including government-sponsored educational exchange programs, state-run broadcasting, and cultural events. “Information exchange, the reduction of clichés and prejudices, the creation of sympathy for their own foreign policy and model of society, self-portrayal, and image-building are all sub-objectives of public diplomacy” (Signitzer and Coombs 1992). Public diplomacy can be effectively carried out when materials and content delivery methods that are easily accepted by the target country’s citizens are used. As stakeholders, foreign citizens are the audience of public diplomacy that ultimately could lead to policy adjustments by foreign governments.

Three Models of Public Diplomacy

Now that the three stakeholders in public diplomacy have been identified, we can construct a three-pronged public diplomacy model that represents the various dimensions of stakeholders. The underlying assumption is that each stakeholder has a distinct perspective, purpose, and objective of public diplomacy. This is reflected in the priority of targeted public diplomacy approaches. As shown in Figure 2, the three models of public diplomacy incorporate distinct goals, tools, and effects individually. However, some public diplomacy programs can deploy multiple models simultaneously which can create a synergistic effect when put together properly.

(1) Interest-oriented public diplomacy model

The interest-oriented public diplomacy focuses on informing foreign public in order to improve the national image of the initiating country (or national brand) and to ultimately increase national interest. Public diplomacy programs are primarily responsible for explaining and defending government policies vis-a-vis foreign audiences and for delivering government-sponsored information to counter potential fake news. The information can be channeled through media relations, branding efforts, instant messaging, and social networking either via government-to-private programs or in the form of private exchanges in which government agencies only serve as facilitators.

The interest-oriented public diplomacy model is related to the stakeholders of domestic politics. In this case, the focus of public diplomacy is primarily on reporting and accountability to relevant stakeholders such as Congress (Gonzalez 2015). Accordingly, the use of public diplomacy in the political sphere is reduced and must be explained in terms of tangible national interest. Improvement of the initiating country’s national image can be linked to specific national interests such as attracting foreign investment or tourists. More broadly, improved national image can help to achieve strategic goals in foreign affairs by winning the support of informed foreign citizens.

(2) Influence-oriented public diplomacy Model

The influence-oriented public diplomacy focuses on building long-term relationships and motivating the target audience to change behaviors. Relational communication is usually entrusted to “a cultural section of the foreign ministry, a cultural institute abroad, or some type of semi-autonomous body” (Signitzer and Coombs 1992) such as the British Council, the German Goethe Institute or the Korean Sejong Institute. This model is related to the stakeholders in bureaucracies who conduct public diplomacy and are evaluated as a means of justifying their existence based on results (Pamment 2014).

The influence-oriented public diplomacy model is based on the belief that free and continuous dialogue through various modalities such as cultural, language, education, outreach, and exchange programs can nurture familiarity, respect, and trust which in turn could evolve into deeper communication in specific areas of concern (Payne 2009). Continuous strategic communication is built upon meaningful long-term relationships that are fundamental to the effective use of public diplomacy. It is generally understood that expanding influence through public diplomacy can be used as a foreign policy tool which subsequently contributes to advancing national interest. In this case, public diplomacy aims to create a positive climate among the general public of a target country to facilitate the acceptance of an initiating country’s foreign policy via diverse communication strategies and relations-building activities (Roberts 2007).

(3) Value-oriented public diplomacy Model

The value-oriented public diplomacy establishes inter-subjective values through interaction with a target public by making the audience aware it is possible to live better lives with higher values. Inter-subjective values can develop through agenda setting efforts such as policy advocacy, policy formation (best practice), and knowledge of global governance and lifestyles. Public diplomacy programs can introduce new items for public debate or shape the way certain topics are discussed. Furthermore, these new or re-contextualized discussions can contribute to the promotion of soft power gained by the country initiating the public diplomacy (Sevin 2017).

Public diplomacy programs can be the catalyst for public discussion of international norms and values which could ultimately alter public opinion and value systems. Changing public opinion could in return, affect a target country’s behavior (Sevin 2017). Value-oriented public diplomacy model suggests that the effectiveness of public diplomacy can sometimes only be evaluated in the long term, and the criteria of value-for-money cannot be directly associated. On the contrary, it emphasizes the importance of specifically engaging with the needs and welfare of the target country’s public and calls for a more consumer driven approach to public diplomacy.


Beijing, the capital of China, has experienced rapid industrialization, urbanization, and automation in recent decades. In 2013, fossil fuel consumption (coal and oil) was estimated to account for more than 88% of its total energy consumption (Zhang et al. 2016). Fossil fuel consumption by far accounts for the largest proportion of artificial air pollutants in China (Zhang et al. 2016). Fine particles (PM 2.5), which are residues of coal combustion and vehicle exhaust, are associated with respiratory and heart diseases and constitute a grave danger to human health (Pope III and Dockery 2006). Yet, air pollution (PM 2.5) had not been recognized as a major environmental problem. Despite major health risks, economic losses, and environmental threats that are the result of high concentrations of outdoor air pollution, air pollution had not been systematically monitored in areas where such efforts were most needed.

Relative to this issue, social media use has also grown in China in tandem with the rapidly increasing number of smartphone users since 2010. Yet, there have been ebbs and flows to the use of popular social media platforms over time. Global social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been blocked in China since 2010 (The Telegraph 2010). In their place, Sina Weibo, a local social media platform, has dominated with the total number of registered users exceeding 500 million as of December 2012. This figure accounts for 57% of Chinese social media users, making it a major communication channel in Chinese society (Ong 2013). By 2014, WeChat became the most popular social media and real-time messenger platform in China (Bjola and Jiang 2015). Subsequently, these outlets have become tools for digital public diplomacy by foreign embassies in China.

(1) Interest-oriented public diplomacy model

In 2008, the U.S. embassy in Beijing launched a pilot program to monitor air quality by installing a monitoring device on the roof of the embassy. An air quality monitoring team collected air samples, measured the PM 2.5, and published Air Quality Index (AQI) values marked as “good”, “unhealthy”, or “dangerous” to users every hour on the U.S. embassy website and its official Twitter account under the ID “Beijing Air” (Zhou 2012; Zhang 2010). The first measuring instrument was installed by the U.S. embassy in Beijing due to the health concerns of U.S. citizens living in Beijing and was originally intended to alert them about bad air quality days (The Guardian 2012). This has also been emphasized as the U.S. justification for continuation of the program in spite of diplomatic pressure from China to discontinue publishing this potentially embarrassing data. It is universally understood that protecting its nationals is one of the primary concerns of a diplomatic mission abroad.

The Chinese government had been publishing indicators of PM 10, which is a measure of relatively coarse particulate matter (smaller than 10 microns in diameter) to assess air quality, but not PM 2.5 levels. This resulted in an assessment of air quality that was sometimes inconsistent with reality. For example, the official Xinhua News Agency reported on December 31, 2012, that Beijing’s air quality improved for the 14th consecutive year and that the levels of major pollutants had decreased. A Beijing municipal government spokesman told Xinhua that the average annual concentration of PM 10 fell by 4 percent in 2012 compared to the previous year. Many residents suffering from bad air quality have questioned the accuracy of official Chinese government figures, which did not include the most damaging smaller particles (BBC 2012). The Chinese government only started its own PM 2.5 monitoring program in January 2013 (Wong 2013). In other words, the data released by the U.S. embassy had been the only reliable source of objective air quality data for many years.

In November 2010, when thick smog was engulfing Beijing, the U.S. embassy's official Twitter account released a tweet describing a value beyond the worst level on air quality index of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and colloquially described the air quality as “crazy bad.” PM 2.5 soared to about 550μg and “crazy bad” was a description established by programmers of the embassy monitoring system as a joke because they thought that level would never be reached (Watts 2010). This Twitter feeds sparked a diplomatic uproar. The U.S. embassy immediately deleted the tweet, replaced the label with “beyond index” and issued an official apology (Zhang 2010). However, this diplomatic gaffe alerted the Chinese public to the presence of monitors at the U.S. embassy and seriousness of air pollution.

Tensions rose on the Chinese Internet when Beijing’s smog became so severe in late 2011 that the Beijing Airport was forced to cancel hundreds of flights due to poor visibility (Kintisch 2018). According to PM 10 data released by the Beijing municipal government, the air was only “slightly polluted” and outraged users of Chinese social media posted PM 2.5 data released by the U.S. embassy and compared it with what the local government was producing (Kintisch 2018).

During this period, the State Department’s air quality monitoring program was expanded to other major cities where the U.S. had consulates: in Shanghai (2011), Guangzhou (2011), Chengdu (2012), and Shenyang (2013). By 2013, all U.S. posts in China had monitors. Public diplomacy of “Beijing Air” contributed to an enhancement of American image and branding. The U.S. embassy was the only diplomatic mission that released such data through an official public diplomacy campaign, a bold move that other non-diplomatic missions hadn’t dared to think of. This bolstered the image of the U.S. among the Chinese citizenry as being advanced in science and technology and being actively concerned about the health of embassy’s personnel and their families as well as U.S. citizens residing in China.

(2) Influence-oriented public diplomacy model

The outreach effect on the audience of the U.S. embassy’s data regarding air pollution in China has raised concerns within the Chinese government about the U.S.’s political intervention and expansion of influence. In June 2012, the deputy minister of the Environmental Protection urged foreign missions in China to refrain from publishing their own data on air pollution. China had previously demanded the U.S. halt its monitoring, but it was the first time it had issued a public warning over the issue (BBC 2012). A U.S. embassy cable from 2009 by Wikileaks stated that China's foreign ministry insisted the U.S. desist in publishing air-quality readings because they were “confusing” and “insulting” and could have “social consequences”, but the embassy refused (Grammaticas 2011). Wu Xiaoqing, deputy minister of Environmental Protection stated at a press briefing that some foreign embassies and consulates in China were monitoring air quality and publishing the results themselves, and that this act contravened the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, and relevant Chinese environmental protection regulations. He also emphasized that only the Chinese government had the authority to publish air pollution data (BBC 2012).

In addition, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin also downplayed and criticized the U.S. embassy’s data by stating that “foreign diplomatic missions in China do not have the legal qualifications to monitor the environment and publish related data, nor do they have the expertise or conditions to engage in environmental monitoring” and “China hopes that its diplomatic missions will comply with the accepted principles of international law, respect China's laws, and stop irresponsible behavior” (环球时报 2012). In spite of these official protestations, the U.S. embassy continued to publish PM 2.5 data. Gary Locke, then ambassador to China recalled that Chinese government officials had called on the embassy to stop disclosing the data, but “we said we couldn't because it was related to the health of American citizens” (Kintisch 2018).

Many Chinese citizens who had become cognizant of the air quality issues in turn became dependent on U.S. data and shared it on social media. China's biggest online marketplace, is reported to have sold 20,000 face masks in Beijing in December 2011 which is an indicator of increased concerns over air quality (Grammaticas 2011). Over the intervening years, poor air quality has been a source of criticism, ridicule, and dissatisfaction of Chinese people toward their government (Kuo 2014). Chinese people began to trust and rely on information from the U.S. embassy more than on data released by the Chinese government. In response, the Chinese government challenged the usefulness and reliability of the U.S. data, pointing out that the sensor at the U.S. embassy is in only one place, providing incomplete information. In response, the U.S. embassy teamed with scientists from the U.S. EPA to verify its results. Erica Thomas, a State Department official who led the air surveillance team at the U.S. embassy in Beijing from 2010 to 2014, said, “I wanted to make sure we were doing it right because we were criticized” (Kintisch 2018).

These actions applied pressure on the Chinese government to adopt stricter monitoring standards and to increase public access to air quality data. The Global Times, an English edition of China's most belligerent tabloid, also acknowledged that the U.S. exerted influence on the Chinese public and China’s policy agenda regarding air quality control. In June 2021, the Global Times stated in an editorial that “in 2011, the U.S. embassy published an extraordinarily high level of PM 2.5, which sent waves across China's social network. This abruptly imposed pressure on China's air quality monitoring. At that time, social media had just become popular in China, and voices that praised and supported the U.S. embassy made up the majority of users. After that round of ‘clash,’ PM 2.5 figures were included in the scope of China's air quality monitoring” (Global Times 2021).

However, even though the Chinese government started releasing PM 2.5 data, official statements often stood in stark contrast to the measurements reported by the U.S. embassy. These inconsistencies did not help to win over public trust (Stoerk 2016). Citizens noticed a huge gap between official Chinese and U.S. embassy figures and still ascribed greater credibility to the U.S. data. This led some to wonder if the leaders were making the numbers up (Stoerk 2016; Lim 2013). The air quality problem in China has been politicized amid growing public discontent and the Beijing municipal government has systematically reported inaccurate pollution levels when the air quality in the region was poor (Turiel and Kaufmann 2021; Stoerk 2016). In particular, the fact that a day with an air quality index (AQI) of 100μg or less was designated as “Blue Sky Day,” and the number of “Blue-Sky Days” was included in the performance evaluation and criteria for the promotion of local government officials, contributes to explaining why misinformation was prevalent (Stoerk 2016).

On the other hand, in 2014 the Air Quality Monitoring Program that began at the Beijing embassy, secured the endorsement of then Secretary of State John Kerry, who agreed to centralize its operation in Washington, D.C. and to establish a formal inter-agency partnership with the EPA (National Museum of American Diplomacy 2022a). The U.S. State Department has expanded its air pollution monitoring programs worldwide beginning in 2014. In 2019, the U.S. State Department specifies the goals of air quality monitoring program as follows (Christel 2019):

∙ Put EPA-approved air quality monitors at posts where real-time data is not available to provide actionable information to protect U.S. personnel and their families

∙ Make data available internally and publicly to help reduce exposure and protect health

∙ Pair posts with U.S. air quality experts through Air Quality Fellowship for remote support

∙ Work with partners to advance science and share policy and technological best practices

(3) Value-oriented public diplomacy model

Following the success of the “Beijing Air” smartphone app, several new apps with different configurations were created which also reported air quality data released by the U.S. embassy. The apps made the PM 2.5 readings widely available to the Chinese public and not surprisingly, these apps became commonly used by residents in China (Kintisch 2018). This is an indication of the great demand by Chinese citizens for reliable information and services.

In addition, the data released by the U.S. embassy on China’s air quality has triggered public debates on air quality measurement and proper policy action by the Chinese government in response to increasingly serious PM 2.5 pollution levels. The Chinese government has been compelled by its citizens to publish more detailed pollution data and this could be seen as a direct consequence of the U.S. embassy publishing PM 2.5 readings (The Guardian 2012). Aware of the discrepancy between the U.S. data and the Chinese government’s reading, local environmental groups residents could have complained the government’s system has consistently underreported severe air quality incidents (Zhang 2010). For example, on the Chinese Sina Weibo posted a comment made by a Chinese citizen in 2011, “The polluted air hurts the health of Beijing people, the statistics released by the Environment Protection Bureau... hurt the feelings of Beijing people” (Grammaticas 2011). This pressure eventually forced the Chinese government to upgrade its own air pollution monitoring standards.

The Chinese government initiated its own PM 2.5 monitoring program across China in 2012 and PM 2.5 started to be listed as a standard pollutant in China’s Advanced Air Quality Systems (AAQS) in 2012 (Kuo 2014). The Beijing municipal government established the Beijing Environmental Monitoring Center, a network of 36 air quality monitoring sites in Beijing. Since 2013, the Chinese government has released official PM 2.5 data every hour for 74 Chinese cities, including Beijing (Lim 2013). In January 2013, China experienced its most serious air pollution incident in the past 20 years, the average daily PM 2.5 concentration in Beijing hit nearly 700μg in extreme cases, and a thick blanket of gray smog that stung people’s eyes covered the entire city (Wong 2013; Kuo 2014). Eventually, there was an official warning to stay indoors and children’s hospitals in Beijing were flooded with roughly 3,000 patients seeking respiratory treatment (Lim 2013). Worsening air quality compelled the Chinese government to overhaul environmental and energy policies including tightening air pollution regulations and energy source regulations (Rajagopalan, Brook and Al-Kindi 2021; Zhang et al. 2016).

These changes in China’s environmental policy helped to improve air quality in China. China's air pollution level has improved dramatically with annual averages across China of 33μg as of 2020 compared to 81μg in 2015 (Rajagopalan, Brook and Al-Kindi 2021). This have contributed to the wellbeing of the people living in China, its neighbors, and in the world in the mid-to-long-term. Concurrently, China’s rapidly changing environmental policy includes a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. China pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060, with its carbon emissions peaking by 2030 as part of the Paris Agreement and additional announcements by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping (Rajagopalan, Brook and Al-Kindi 2021).

The “Beijing Air” public diplomacy campaign demonstrates the impact that value-oriented public diplomacy can achieve by contributing to public welfare and through agenda-setting. The U.S. did not just tackle the air pollution problem directly through official diplomatic channels or open public criticism; it shared its values regarding the environment and clean air with the Chinese public which led them to raise issues with their own government. According to the official statement by the U.S. State Department, “Air pollution is a serious issue around the world. It harms the environment and our health. Despite these threats, air pollution levels are not monitored in many countries. The State Department is helping to change that” (National Museum of American Diplomacy 2022b).

As of 2020, the State Department has expanded its “Beijing Air” public diplomacy initiative to over 60 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. All of them have installed air monitors and are publishing live data on the EPA’s Air Now platform (Bernicat 2020). A high-ranking U.S. State Department official commented that the published real-time data on the EPA’s Air Now platform is “fueling policy discussions, domestic policy changes, and the sale of U.S. equipment overseas” in recognition of the impact of the air monitoring (Bernicat, 2020). Indeed, in India, where air pollution in New Delhi and other cities has skyrocketed, “the data has flowed from the embassy to the media and then created outcry” (Kintisch 2018). This demonstrates that as a global air quality watchdog, the U.S. missions have raised concerns about air pollution irrespective of the nature of political regime of the host country.

The U.S State Department also continues to operate other public diplomacy programs in addition to monitoring facilities that target air quality improvement in foreign countries. For example, 23 prominent scientists and engineers, including Nobel laureates, serving as special scientific envoys have been dispatched to more than 50 countries to expand international engagement in air quality, health security, innovation, infectious diseases, and space use (Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy 2022). Programs that lend support for international public outreach, e.g., the International Air Quality Awareness Week, via social media coverage, outreach materials, and event concepts, are other examples (Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy 2020).


The “Beijing Air” example showed how a U.S. digital public diplomacy program could have an influence on local Chinese people which in turn, had a positive effect on the U.S.’s soft power in China. As Nye (2008) advocated, “soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.” The “Beijing Air” campaign provided Chinese people with a point of comparison between data produced by the U.S. and the Chinese governments respectively. Enhanced awareness regarding PM 2.5 among the Chinese public helped to shape their demand for the Chinese government to provide better data and for it to take action to cope with this specific environmental issue. Moreover, the “Beijing Air” campaign increased the U.S.’s soft power by building a reputation for credibility with the Chinese people, which could ultimately lead to creating a more receptive environment for U.S. government policies in China.

The U.S.’s use of public diplomacy in the “Beijing Air” case can be a useful reference for government officials who want to devise effective public diplomacy programs in target countries. This strategy eventually created sufficient pressure on the Chinese government to move forward with better air quality policy implementation which eventually contributed to the welfare of people in China, its neighbors, and around the world. The impact that the “Beijing Air” can be attributed to the fact that it struck a balance between the interests of the three public diplomacy stakeholders which are: domestic politics, bureaucracy, and the target country’s public. The “Beijing Air” case relative to the three models of public diplomacy, namely, interest-oriented public diplomacy, influence-oriented public diplomacy, and value-oriented public diplomacy, revealed that the most far-reaching political outcome was achieved through value-oriented public diplomacy which considered the needs and priorities of the target country’s public as the main stakeholders. Thus, meeting the needs of the foreign public yielded much greater impact in enhancing the U.S.’s image and exerting influence, and contributed substantially to the increase of the U.S.’s soft power in China.

Moreover, the U.S. government exploited the preemptive use of available digital social media platforms to access broader communities of foreign citizens. Digital public diplomacy has been particularly successful in tandem with China’s rapidly growing internet media platforms and increased number of users. A similar approach to digital public diplomacy is worth considering in countries where digital media utilization is high.

Furthermore, this article attempted to draw attention to the importance of working-level daily public diplomacy practices as research on the practices of public diplomacy has been limited. Public diplomacy practitioners are often called upon to provide evidence of the impact of their work to secure funding for their programs, but they have insufficient means or resources with which to do so. In fact, the impact of working-level public diplomacy is difficult to document or evaluate separately from well-broadcasted summits or activities of high-ranking officials. However, daily public diplomacy work ranging from media diplomacy, cultural diplomacy to Corporate Social Responsibility diplomacy, are part of important diplomatic maneuvers being carried out at the working level in embassies and consulates around the world. The “Beijing Air” case is only a single, albeit extraordinary, case of such public diplomacy involving both the U.S. and China that received relatively considerable media attention.

Fig. 1. Stakeholders of Public Diplomacy
Fig. 2. Three Models of Public Diplomacy
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