China’s new rich are fond of saying “nothing is a problem if money can solve it”. But over the past week, nearly everyone in China realised there are things in the country that not even the rich can buy. Clean air was one of them. The recent air pollution reached such a horrifying level that brown clouds were actually observed over the country from space.
On Tuesday, Xinhua announced that smog had affected an area of 1.3 million square kilometres – more than a seventh of the country’s total area of 9.6 square kilometres.
It said the air in Beijing and Tianjin, and the provinces of Hebei and Shandong was “gravely polluted”, and that in the provinces of Henan, Shanxi, Jiangsu, Liaoning, Jilin, Anhui, Hubei, and Sichuan was “seriously polluted”.
This meant that of the 31provinces, municipalities and regions, 12 were hit by air pollution, an astonishingly high number even for a people used to being smothered by smog.
Zhong Nanshan, who is well known for his role in fighting the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, said on state television on Wednesday: “Air pollution is a combination of the external and internal environment, and it is much scarier than Sars. You can isolate Sars patients, but nobody can escape air pollution.”
The Guangzhou Daily newspaper’s front page on Wednesday carried photos of people from different regions of the country wearing various types of face mask.
The Southern Metropolis Daily’sfront page simply showed a smoggy Beijing street.
The capital city was hardest hit. The Beijing Newsran pictures of major city landmarks on its front page – including its airport and the Summer Palace – all smothered by grey smog, and called for new regulations to minimise air pollution.
“Beijing cannot change the city’s air quality by itself. There is an urgent need for national-level regulations on clean air, which should clarify the responsibilities of the government, enterprises and individuals,” the paper said in its editorial on Wednesday.
Real estate developer Pan Shiyi, who spearheaded a social media campaign calling on the authorities to release figures for fine-particle, or PM2.5, pollution, echoed the paper’s call. He started an online poll to gauge support for a “Clean Air Bill”. Over 30,000 internet users voted, with nearly 99 per cent in favour of the idea.
The Beijing Times used a full page to urge residents to set off fewer fireworks at Lunar New Year, to reduce the particulate matter hanging in the air. It said that on the eve of the Lunar New Year in 2012, the PM2.5 level reached 1,593 micrograms per cubic metre in the city after hours of fireworks. “That was even higher than the most polluted day so far this year in Beijing,” the paper said. “It is residents’ responsibility to create a good environment for themselves and their families.”
PM2.5 refers to particles 2.5 microns or less in diameter which can be inhaled.
Some citizens said they were thinking of fleeing the city. Among them was renowned actress Song Dandan, a Beijing native who lamented on her microblog that after having lived in the city for more than 50 years she was considering leaving.
“A flood of emigration and every other type of temptation has been unable to get me to leave this lovable city. But today, I keep asking myself: ‘Where should I go to spend my final years?’” she wrote on Tuesday beside a photo showing the thick smog outside her window.
Such concern prompted the government to respond. Nearly all mainland media reported Premier Wen Jiabao saying on Tuesday: “Recent smoggy weather is affecting people’s production and health. We should take effective measures to accelerate industrial restructuring, and push forward energy conservation and emissions reduction.”