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Beijing gets smug to cut through the smog

Humour helps, but the Chinese capital's record-breaking pollution problem is no laughing matter.
Last modified: 13 Jan 2013 18:58
Residents are wearing face masks as air quality is said to be the "worst on records" [Reuters]

For Beijing residents, the pollution issue really isn’t new.

“I’m just coming out to breathe some fresh air,” I heard a guy joking with a friend in the street of the Chinese capital. If the British have a fascination for talking about the weather, then Beijingers certainly bond through small talk about pollution.

Looking out the window of my Beijing apartment can be inspirational. Well, I could be really anywhere in the world. With the level of smog, I can imagine being in any fantasy doomsday movie, or Mordor of The Lord of the Rings, or Gotham of Batman.

This is the third day in which air quality in Beijing has plunged to a new low. Data from the Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre showed particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) reaching over 900. The recommended level of PM2.5 according to the World Health Organisation is 20.

Schools have been instructed to stop outdoor activities for the next three days. People suffering respiratory or cardiovascular illness were advised to stay indoors. Thirty percent of Beijing's buses have been taken out of traffic to avoid further pollution.

If you take a deep breath, you can smell car fumes or coal dust. Even for a long-term resident with a not particularly sensitive nose, the air has a slight burning sensation in the throat.

The news portal Sina.com published an article on polluted cities in history, mentioning the death of 12,000 people in London in 1952 due to a heavy smog. It was a reminder that Beijing is not alone.

Its citizens, though, have become less tolerant of the issue.

“We keep shouting about the figure, but nothing is being done to lower emissions," user Basonglangwang wrote on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. "It’s like the thief has stolen a bag and is shouting about the theft. Sometimes the thief is shouting louder than other people. The government needs to act.”

More responsible residents of the city took it upon themselves to show the extent to Beijing’s pollution.

Photographer Wang Yikun took photos on 364 days, from November 22, 2011, untill November 21, 2012, to show the level of pollution in the city. Wang said Saturday was the worst he has seen in his whole life.

The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau announced that the pollution is expected to continue this week, making mask-sellers the only happy people in the city. Many places have been reportedly out of stock of PM2.5-prevention facial masks since last week.