Filthy air in the smog-plagued capital has grabbed unwanted attention as the annual gatherings of Beijing's top legislature and advisory body take place. The local government is attempting to put a positive spin on the city's severe pollution problems.
The smog - the worst in three months - hit Beijing on Tuesday morning, coinciding with the opening of this year's session of the Municipal People's Political Consultative Conference.
The local authorities were apparently embarrassed. They have issued an order muzzling media coverage of smog-causing pollutants, notably PM2.5, hazardous fine respirable particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns. PM2.5 has been at the centre of the public's growing frustration over a lack of transparency about the city's worsening air pollution.
The media ban was revealed yesterday by property tycoons Pan Shiyi, a representative to the Beijing Municipal People's Congress, and Ren Zhiqiang, a deputy to the municipal People's Political Consultative Conference. Both often comment on the city's pollution woes, particularly through their Twitter-like Sina microblogs.
The disturbing ban came just days after Mayor Guo Jinlong promised last week to implement newly revised national air pollution standards and to release PM2.5 data next year. Guo's pledge was seen as a big concession by local authorities to the public's widespread calls for access to government data on health-threatening PM2.5 particles.
It was among a flurry of efforts that Beijing has made in the past two weeks to defuse public anger over the prolonged secrecy shrouding fine particles, including unveiling a plan to publish some of its PM2.5 data later this month.
The ban was mocked by mainland internet users yesterday, and cast fresh doubt on the local government's commitment to tackle severe air pollution problems.
A senior local environmental official openly challenged those pledges this week, questioning the government's readiness for greater transparency. In an interview with the Shandong-based Qilu Evening News published on Monday, Du Shaozhong, spokesman and deputy director of the municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, insisted that mainland authorities should focus on tackling large particles such as PM10 first.
'It remains too early to discuss how to control PM2.5, as PM10 readings in Beijing last year still exceeded national standards by 20 per cent', he said. 'There is little point in releasing PM2.5 data at the moment, because the public will realise it is way too difficult to tackle the problem.
'It is not a good idea to spend limited financial and human resources on monitoring and curbing PM2.5-related pollution woes.'
His remarks, largely a reiteration of a much criticised earlier attempt he made to justify the municipal government's sluggish response to widespread public concerns over PM2.5, come despite unsettling recent findings about the health hazards posed by fine particles. Top mainland health experts have warned in state media over the past two months that PM2.5 particles pose a much greater danger than PM10, as the former can be absorbed deep into the bloodstream and cause lung cancer and other deadly diseases.
The controversy over persistent smog in big cities since October has escalated into a national outcry and apparently embarrassed top leaders, with both Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang publicly supporting citizens' demands for greater transparency on PM2.5-related issues.
The mainland's outdated air pollution standards have been revised by the environment ministry to cover smog-related pollutants such as PM2.5 and ozone, and the new standards are expected to be made public by the end of this month, Minister of Environmental Protection Zhou Shengxian said last week, according to the ministry's website.
Beijing authorities announced a plan for the first time late last year to share some of its PM2.5 data, and they unveiled a controversial research finding that said Beijing's air quality, as well as the readings for PM2.5, had been improving steadily over the past decade.
However, air pollution experts from The Chinese Academy of Sciences were quoted by state television as saying last month that PM2.5 concentrations in the capital had risen by 4 per cent a year since 1998, citing their own statistics.
Visibility, in metres, in the rush hour in the eastern and southern parts of the city this week