This paper explores the perception and politics of air pollution in Shanghai. We present a qualitative case study based on a literature review of relevant policies and research on civil society and air pollution, in dialogue with air quality indexes and field research data. We engage with the concept of China's authoritarian environmentalism and the political context of ecological civilization. We find that discussions about air pollution are often placed in a frame that is both locally temporal (environment) and internationally developmentalist (economy). We raise questions from an example of three applications with different presentations of air quality index measures for the same time and place. This example and frame highlight the central role and connection between technology, data and evidence, and pollution visibility in the case of the perception of air pollution. Our findings then point to two gaps in authoritarian environmentalism research, revealing a need to better understand (1) the role of technology within this governance context, and (2) the tensions created from this non-participatory approach with ecological civilization, which calls for civil society participation.