Only five of 120 mainland cities logged "blue-sky days" on New Year's Day as the first up-to-the-hour air quality readings were reported under tougher pollution standards.
Data posted on the Ministry of Environmental Protection's website yesterday showed that most cities saw "moderate" levels of sulphur dioxide and PM10, or large particulate matter, with 29 cities showing slight pollution.
In Beijing, even the chilly winter winds failed to clear the smog, with most of its 35 monitoring stations showing "moderate" air pollution. The 24-hour reading of PM2.5 fine particulates in the southern area of Yizhuang stood at 153, or moderate pollution.
The outskirts of the city seemed to fare the worst. The remote Liulihe monitoring station in the southwestern suburbs of Fangshan district recorded the worst air quality index (AQI) in the city, 210. Several cities that are near the capital, such as Baoding, Shijiangzhuang and Tianjin, saw the worst pollution in the country.
The environmental ministry warned last year that at least two out of three of cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou would fail to meet the revised air quality standards, which still lag behind World Health Organisation recommendations.
The new standards announced in March apply to ozone, carbon monoxide and PM2.5 - particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter that are linked to respiratory diseases - along with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and large particulate matter. Figures are reported hourly from 496 monitoring sites in 74 cities.
More than two dozen cities have begun updating daily PM2.5 readings in the past few months. Several, including Beijing and Guangzhou, are providing real-time PM2.5 data on a trial basis.
But Tuesday was the first time that the 74 biggest cities - mostly municipalities, provincial capitals and affluent commercial hubs in the Pearl and Yangtze river deltas - published hourly and daily pollution readings on government websites.
"It's remarkable that the number of cities offering public access to real-time PM2.5 data has gone from zero to 74 in just over a year," said Ma Jun , director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Heeding public concerns over the quality of the monitoring data, Wan Bentai , a chief engineer at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said in a statement that authorities were focused on ensuring minimum interference from local governments during the release of pollution readings.
Environmental officials in Beijing said the adoption of the new standards would also mean the end of the mainland government's tally of blue-sky days, which had been widely criticised as glossing over the truth about pollution.
Sanya , in Hainan , was among the five cities to get the rating yesterday.
"It is simply unacceptable that local authorities such as those in Beijing have said air pollution will not be brought under control until 2030 given the palpable human toll of smog problems," Ma said.
"How difficult can it really be to control the sources of pollution and cut emissions?"