BEIJING — Communist China is hardly known for its transparency. So when environmental groups appealed to the government last year to disclose official data on air pollution, they were not expecting much.
‘‘Way beyond our expectations, the government actually said yes,’’ said Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing. ‘‘I am quite amazed.’’
Since Jan. 1, the central government has required 15,000 factories — including influential state-run enterprises — to publicly report details on air emissions and water discharges in real time, an unprecedented degree of disclosure that is shedding light on the who, what, when, and where of China’s devastating environmental problems.
The reporting requirement is part of a striking turnaround by China’s government, which is also publishing data on the sootiest cities and trying to limit the use of coal.
The country’s appalling air is blamed for more than a million premature deaths a year, for producing acid rain that damages the nation’s agriculture, for driving away tourists, and even for encouraging the brightest students to study abroad. Perhaps just as important, Beijing’s bad air has been making its Communist leaders lose face.
Cleaning up China’s bad air will take years, even in the best of circumstances. The economy is dependent on coal, and many powerful interests are involved. But activists say the new steps could at least represent the beginning of change.
Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington says the reporting requirement for factories is the ‘‘biggest thing’’ China has done to address its pollution problems, and the most likely to produce results.
‘‘It brings them from the back of the pack globally, in terms of public information disclosure, to the front of the pack,’’ Greer added by phone. ‘‘Inevitably it will strengthen the hand of regulators when they have bad air-pollution days, to look at real-time data.’’