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China: Air pollution off the charts in Beijing

Updated On: Jan 15, 2013

Air pollution in the Chinese capital of Beijing have reached toxic levels, with levels of particulates of diameter 2.5 micrometres and below (PM2.5) reportedly hitting above 800 micrograms (mcg) per cubic square over the weekend. Officials issued their first ever "orange alert" health warning for air pollution on Sunday and advised young children and the elderly to stay indoors, and took measures to halt some construction activity and ban some cars from the roads.

Analysis: Beijing confronts pollution dilemma [Financial Times, 14 Jan 2013]

Analysis: Severe Beijing smog prompts unusual transparency from officials, media amid public pressure [Washington Post, 15 Jan 2013]

Analysis: Pollution may make economy stumble [China Daily, 15 Jan 2013]

Media reports say that the air pollution could cause a credibility crisis for the incoming administration of Xi Jinping. Both Chinese and international experts say that one of the biggest problems the government faces is the willingness of officials at all levels to sacrifice environmental concerns for the overriding goal of economic growth. More, a lack of accountability in the system, the difficulty in confronting large state-owned companies, as well as the ease in manipulating data furthers the problem. These issues stymie any stringent regulations and standards that the government implements.

Even state-owned media did not shy away from giving critical remarks about the smog. The Communist Party-run China Youth Daily ran a front-page commentary with the headline "More suffocating than the haze is the weakness in response." Experts in Beijing also warned that the pollution and responses to reduce it could do harm to the economy and tourism.

A burgeoning middle class is becoming more vocal about environmental concerns. The Beijing government had previously not released hourly readings of PM2.5 levels, but a Twitter feed from the US Embassy that did so triggered public demands for more detailed air quality information. Under pressure, the Beijing government eventually began releasing such readings.