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While the pollution choking China is testament to the country’s explosive growth over the past 20 years, so is the call for greater government transparency - and cleaner air.

A new middle class that is increasingly well-traveled and wired to the Internet is turning its attention to quality of life and demanding official accountability.

“Firstly, people on low incomes care about food and clothing. Once food and clothing is no longer a problem, they start to care about the environment and health. Especially the air,” said Mr. Wang, 23, the Green Beagle activist.

Chinese authorities have squared off against this more assertive middle class on matters such as computer censorship and contaminated milk.

In August, 12,000 residents in the wealthy northeastern port city of Dalian demonstrated against a chemical plant thought to be unsafe, and the government promised to relocate the plant.

While posting pollution data on the Internet is not specifically illegal, challenging the government can be considered subversive in China, where the government zealously guards data it considers sensitive. In the past, people have been jailed for leaking government economic data ahead of the release date.

The battle over Beijing’s air seemed to take off this fall amid a run of smog-choked days.

Pan Shiyi, a rich celebrity property developer who symbolizes middle-class aspirations, took to China’s version of Twitter to repost readings, including PM2.5, from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that measures air quality from a monitor on its roof and publishes them online every hour.

The U.S. Embassy air quality readings are often bleaker than the official measures.

Early this month - during which hundreds of flights were canceled because of poor visibility at Beijing’s airport - embassy readings went from “hazardous” to “beyond index” as pollution exceeded the scale used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau said pollution was light.

Deborah Seligsohn, an adviser to the Washington-based World Resources Institute, said the government’s air quality information isn’t timely, since it’s an average of the previous 24 hours.

But she said the controversy glosses over the strides that China has made in combating pollution and that the United States did not begin measuring PM2.5 until after 2000 and enforcing limits until 2006.

“The government is making major moves to control” the kind of pollution that was typical of London and Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, said Ms. Seligsohn, who lives in Beijing. “It’s a long process.”

Programs are in place to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which come from power plants among other sources and which turn to PM2.5 in the air, Ms. Seligsohn said, and there are plans to control emissions of volatile organic compounds, which come from vehicles, by 2015.

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