— For nearly a week, the Chinese capital, Beijing, and a large swath of the northeastern part of the country have been blanketed by a thick, seemingly immovable veil of smog. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the situation should be seen as a crisis. The Chinese government, however, has been taking a low-key approach to what some residents say is the worst smog they have ever experienced.
While many Beijing residents were avoiding China’s smoggy air this week and staying indoors, President Xi Jinping made a surprise visit to an old Beijing neighborhood this week.
Political analysts say the visit was yet another effort by Xi to portray himself as a man of the masses. However, what was also noticeable about the visit was that neither the president nor those thronging around him were wearing facemasks.
The visit came the same day that WHO's China representative, Bernhard Schwartlander, called the pollution situation a crisis.
“A crisis means that we need to take immediate action to protect ourselves, so in these days, of course, we have to recommend that people don't go outside to have physical activities, they stay inside, keep children inside to the extent possible to protect them from the possible negative health effects that we have,” he said.
A man wearing a mask makes his way amid thick haze in Beijing, Feb. 25, 2014.
A man wearing a mask drives a car amid thick haze in the morning in Beijing, Feb. 26, 2014.
Commuters wearing masks make their way amid thick haze in the morning in Beijing, Feb. 26, 2014.
Cars drive on the Three Ring Road amid the heavy haze in Beijing, Feb. 26, 2014.
Japanese tourists wearing masks make their way to the Olympic Park amid thick haze in Beijing, Feb. 25, 2014.
People visit the Olympic Park amid thick haze in Beijing, Feb. 25, 2014.
Buildings are seen shrouded in heavy haze at Qingdao development zone, Shandong province, Feb. 25, 2014.
Children with respiratory illness receive treatment at a hospital in Beijing, Feb. 21, 2014.
Some have criticized the Beijing City government for its slow response to the smog. After criticisms late last week, the city raised its pollution alert level to Orange, the first time it has done so. But as pollution levels continued to rise, the government did not raise its alert to red, prompting concerns particularly among parents of young school children.
Huang Wei, Greenpeace East Asia’s climate and energy campaigner, says the government’s response has sent the public mixed signals.
Huang says that although the smog has been affecting the city for at least a week now, the city government’s response has not differed much from its approach to the problem in the past. She says that now, however, environmental officials should reflect on their decision not to close junior high and elementary schools, despite calls to do just that.
Orange is the city’s second highest alert level, at which schools and kindergartens are advised to cancel outside sports classes. At red, the highest level of alert, schools must close and government vehicles are ordered to keep off the road. According to Beijing officials, levels must be forecast to be above severely polluted levels for three consecutive days for a red alert to be released.
Apparently, government officials did not believe Beijing's condition met that standard.
China has pledged to spend billions of dollars to fix its pollution problem, increased inspections of polluting plants, raised penalties as well as setting air quality targets. But the problem still seems to be getting worse.
On the streets in Beijing Wednesday, the prospect of any solution for the problem from residents was as clear as the sky above.
A Beijing resident who was born and raised in the capital says he has never experienced smog that has lasted this long. He says the pollution problem is so big and complex, and there are so many interlaced problems, that it is hard to imagine it can be resolved any time soon.
One elderly woman who refused to be identified said: "what difference would it make, it’s not like the government is going to listen to what I have to say."
This woman says that the smog was not only having a physical impact but psychological as well. She says everyone feels bad, if you just look around, everyone is just hurrying one place to the next to get away from the smog.
For now, the good news is that the recent spate of smog is almost over. Forecasters expect that an inversion that has helped trap the air over the city will soon end and winds will help move the choking air away.