Members of the mainland's top political advisory body braved the choking smog that returned to Beijing yesterday as the first of the two annual political assemblies in the capital this week got under way.
Few, if any, delegates appeared to be wearing a mask as protection, even though readings of air pollution from the United States embassy reached hazardous levels at 2pm when members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference started to show up at the Great Hall of the People.
Many, however, said they had suffered in recent weeks from the smog that has smothered large parts of the north of the country.
But some also admitted they felt increasingly helpless as they had not seen improvement in recent years, despite efforts to tackle the problem. Pan Qinglin , a deputy director of a federation in Tianjin for returned overseas Chinese, said he had previously offered suggestions to the government on how to tackle pollution, but not this year.
"No proposals could ever solve this problem, so I'm not even bothering to bring it up again," he said. "It's nature's revenge on us: we have simply emitted too much pollution into the air."
Meanwhile, Olympic hurdler and delegate Liu Xiang complained he could only train indoors when the pollution was bad, as "nothing could be done about it", the Yangtze Evening Post reported.
The smog also appears to be tarnishing the capital's image.
"Many friends were asking me whether they should prepare masks before visiting Beijing," said Fung Dan-lai, a political adviser attending the conference from Hong Kong. "Some have even reduced the number of trips to the capital city."
Wang Huaichao, a professor at the Central Party School, said the latest week-long smog that hit the north of the mainland should ring an urgent alarm that "nature is not our trash can".
The country needed both economic and political reforms to address the problem, he said. "Nearly 500 million of the population were literally breathing poisons every day during the latest round of smog that lasted 6½ days and covered as much as 300 sq km of territory," he said.
As the government struggles to implement solutions for short-term relief, some were trying to think outside of the box.
Yang Zhongqi, at the Chinese Academy of Forestry, said: "Perhaps we can build an artificial wind corridor [around Beijing] so that we don't need to wait desperately for the wind to come on smoggy days."
Additional reporting by Eric Ng