A three-digit reading on the air pollution index would normally unsettle the public, but not in Beijing, and certainly not these days.
Indeed, the smog-stricken Beijing residents are much relieved by the descending 281 reading published on Monday, which state broadcaster CCTV called “an evident improvement”.
The levels of PM 2.5-tiny particulate matter surged to 500 on Saturday, the highest level on the official monitoring chart and 20 times the daily level considered safe by World Health Organisation.
Beijing Meteorological Bureau issued its first and highest level orange smog warning, while experts advised people against going outside.
Despite the record high air quality index reading and PM 2.5 level, environmental officials insisted that the air quality in Beijing had been improving, claiming “Beijing’s 14-year combat against air pollution has achieved evident improvement”.
Residents in Beijing with a good sense of humour were more than ready to joke about the smoggy weather.
“The furthest distance in the world, is not the distance between life and death, but you can’t see me when I stand next to you on the street in Beijing,” Sina Weibo user and Beijing-based film director @Hushufang tweeted.
Beijing was repeatedly and jokingly referred to as, the “Capital of Smog” by online users. Some even went as far as suggesting Chen Guangbiao, a Chinese billionaire who had made headlines just a few months ago for launching canned air in China, should sell his product in Beijing.
Even the Global Times, a vocal supporter of the government, surprised many by asking the authorities to face the truth in its Monday editorial.
“The smoggy weather merely pushes us in front of the mirror again, making us realise how naive the idea of the ‘Image Project’ is.” [The Image Project refers to spending on grand schemes, such as the Bird’s Nest olympic stadium, rather than tackling underlying problems like air pollution]
China’s state broadcaster CCTV taunted the capital’s air quality by dedicating a lengthy slot of its flagship news programme News 1+1 to the “Beijing Cough” and other pollution related symptoms. One CCTV journalist said on the programme that he had a serious skin allergy problem while he was living in Beijing and recovered soon after he moved to Britain.
While the wearing of breathing masks by foreigners during the 2008 Olympics was seen by many Chinese as an act of disrespect and an effort to demonise China, it is now a growing trend among the locals in the capital.
Masks have been so popular in the past few days that some pharmacies almost sold out, according to the state run Legal Daily. Chris Buckley, owner of the Torana Clean Air Center in Beijing, told the Wall Street Journalthat he had received a three-fold increase in inquiries about air purifiers since the smoggy weather.
Ironically, the Ministry of Environmental Protection was allegedly inviting tenders for an air purifier a few days ago, though it later denied the procurement had anything to do with air quality in Beijing.