As smog levels rise in Chinese cities, the central government is coming under increasing pressure to act.
Nobody noticed at first when a blaze broke out last year at a furniture factory in the east Chinese province of Zhejiang. It took three hours for the flames and the smoke to draw attention - until then the fire had been camouflaged by the heavy smog.
Air pollution has reached alarming proportions in China. Last year, the average concentration of fine particles was 89.5 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing. The particles, which are so small that they can enter the lungs and the bloodstream, are extremely harmful to human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends maximum levels of 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
According to Chinese statistics, air pollution is responsible for up to half a million deaths per year. A study by the WHO and the University of Washington in Seattle puts the figure at 1.2 million.
Early this month, a report released by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences found that the Chinese capital was "barely suitable" for living. This provoked thousands of sarcastic comments in China's cyberspace, especially on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo, before the censors deleted them.
And Beijing is not even in the top ten list of cities with the worst air pollution levels in China, says Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. "Many are much worse. Moreover, many people do not have a choice. They cannot simply leave the city." Therefore, it is not a question of declaring a city unlivable but of taking measures to solve the problem.
An action plan
The government in Beijing has started taking measures. Some 15,000 factories have been ordered to publish the levels of harmful substances they are releasing into the air since the beginning of the year.
Furthermore, last autumn the State Council approved an action plan to combat and air pollution by 2017 in three core areas - the Yangtze Delta, the Pearl River Delta and Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei provinces. Huang Wei from Greenpeace China has welcomed the action plan, but says it "should cover more regions."
The aim is to reduce the amount of fine particles per cubic meter to 60 micrograms by 2017 in Beijing - this is still six times more than the WHO recommends. The plan also aims to curb harmful emissions by energy intensive heavy industry, such as steel and aluminum plants, as well as chemicals factories, within five years. Old vehicles that pollute the roads will be removed from circulation. Energy efficiency will be increased and there will be more use of renewable energy. The government also wants to reduce dependency on coal, which at the moment covers 70 percent of the country's energy needs, to 65 percent. However, the International Energy Agency predicts that China's needs for coal will grow until 2018 so the government's goals might not be reached.
If the government cannot hold its promises, it risks stirring the ire and impatience of the population even more. Even the state television CCTV has criticized the government of Beijing for not doing enough to reduce smog. Two days of comments from its account on Sina Weibo surprised many users who had rarely seen a state broadcaster express so much open criticism; some even thought the account must have been hacked. The censors stepped in after two days, however.
"So long as there is smog, people will not be happy," says Huang Wei. "They will continue to monitor what the government is doing to get rid of the problem."
This week, it showed no sign of going away. The US embassy in Beijing reported that the concentration of fine particulates had exceeded 300 micrograms per cubic meter.