As the saying goes, to solve a problem, one must realise the problem exists. Therefore, to overcome procrastination, one must first realise they are procrastinating.

But watching the mainland government dawdle, delay and even avoid dealing with the increasingly toxic smog that often blankets vast areas of the country, affecting hundreds of millions of people, proves that this very simple problem-solving technique has eluded Chinese officials.

Back in March 2005, then premier Wen Jiabao ( 溫家寶 ) declared in his annual work report that the government’s goal was to enable people to breathe fresh air and drink clean water. Attracting thunderous applause from the Great Hall of the People and broadcast live on national television, it was the first time in recent decades that a Chinese leader had made such a pledge in a key document.

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That promise, however, proved to be a one-off, not the least because by the end of 2005, there was already a massive chemical contamination of the rivers in the northeastern provinces of Jilin ( 吉林 ), Heilongjiang (黑龍江) and Guangdong, affecting millions of people. Also since then, that pledge – particularly the part about enabling people to breathe fresh air – has been conspicuously missing from annual government work reports.

Whenever there were natural disasters or industrial accidents that caused fatalities in the mainland, state media would waste no time in playing up top leaders’ swift reactions. More often, leaders themselves would rush to the scenes to show they put the people first.

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But as air pollution has intensified across the country, contributing to the deaths of about one million people each year (about 3,000 people a day), according to various credible studies, top Chinese leaders have been reticent to speak publicly on the issue. This could partly be attributed to concerns that their otherwise rapt attention might raise public expectations on an issue for which the government cannot provide immediate solutions. Worse still, it could stoke social unrest.

Indeed, reports suggest it took London and Los Angeles some 30 years to clean up their air pollution. And for China, the most optimistic forecast has been that the country would see air pollution ease by 2030 at the earliest. But procrastination is making things worse.

Anecdotal evidence shows that concerns about air pollution have contributed to overseas migration of the elites and, more recently, middle class families, thus worsening the massive outflow of capital.

Even more ominous is the lack of a comprehensive national strategy or determination from top leaders to curb air pollution, which has contributed to widespread anger among mainlanders whose patience with smog is wearing thin. Online petitions for more drastic government action have been growing, especially among middle class residents who often travel overseas and make easy comparisons. It is these mounting frustrations that could potentially contribute to the very social unrest that officials are trying to avoid.

To be fair, the mainland’s leadership under President Xi Jinping (習近平) has shown greater zeal in tackling environmental degradation by making environmental protection a national priority and by promising to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change.

With much of China’s air pollution caused by the large-scale burning of coal and inefficient industries such as cement, iron and steel, the government has invested trillions of yuan into renewable power generation. It has also committed 2.5 trillion yuan over the next five years to shift the country away from coal power and onto cleaner fuels. Meanwhile, Xi is pushing ahead with his supply-side structural reforms to reduce excess capacity in high-polluting industries.

While those efforts sound grand and may eventually bear fruit, the everyday mainland citizen is yet to see or feel an impact, particularly after the return of heavy smog this winter.

What has greatly contributed to that helpless feeling is a lack of effective monitoring or enforcement on the ground – local officials are widely known to assist polluters to skirt regulations and ward off investigators.

It was only in recent years that the central government started encouraging closer regional cooperation to combat air pollution, whereas previously and ineffectively, it was up to each individual city to take their own action.

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To help turn around this dire situation, the mainland leadership must learn from other countries, such as Britain and Japan. First and foremost, it should pass tougher laws to make polluters truly pay. Last year, environmental watchdogs reportedly collected fines totaling 4.25 billion yuan, with each fine averaging less than 44,000 yuan, which was pitiful.

Secondly, the central government must lift restrictions on the media and non-government organisations to boost monitoring, encourage public debate on health and regulation, and ensure effective implementation of the rules. Other countries that have made similar changes have shown that more transparency and public participation helps to rally opinions, and does not bring instability.

More importantly, Chinese leaders must stick their own necks out by leading the charge against air pollution. In this country’s rigid bureaucracy, leading by example has always been the best way to move things forward. For a start, the mainland government could set up a national special committee to declare war on smog and kick start the national debate.

Surely, enabling the Chinese people to breathe fresh air is a key part of the Chinese dream.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper