For the first time Beijing has raised its alert system for air quality to “orange” as smog settled over the capital where reports say it will smother the city for at least three days. This is the second highest level in the new four tier system recently put in place by the government. At this level schools are advised to cancel outside activities, children and the elderly are encouraged to stay indoors, and all residents are asked to not make use of their automobiles.
The government in Beijing has been criticized by media in the country for not acting sooner in the face of higher than usual pollution levels. Smog has been hanging over the capital since before last weekend, but the government had issued only a blue level alert on Saturday. Blue is the lowest level, followed by yellow, then the current level, orange, and finally red, signifying critically dangerous levels of air contamination.
News agency Xinjua reported that after the orange alert was issued today, city inspectors were sent to factories across the capital to determine if fines would be charged to those business and organizations breaching emission rules. 75 companies were ordered to reduce activity and 36 others were required to completely stop production, according to reports.
Air Quality Index (AQI) readings above 300 micrograms per cubic meter – in excess of ten times levels considered acceptable by the World Health Organization (WHO) – are what brought the orange level warning into effect. The U.S. embassy in Beijing put the levels of dangerous particles (those measuring under 2.5 micrometers across, or PM2.5’s) at 378 on Friday.
Smothering Beijing on that afternoon was not only the white, smoky pollution which had triggered the orange level alert, but also criticism of how the government was handling this increasingly dangerous issue.
Reports say citizens are tired of an economic model driven by growth-at-all-costs which is ravishing the country’s soil, water, and air. A user of weibo, a popular micro-blogging service in China remarked, “[D]o the PM2.5 measurements have to explode off the charts before we see a red alert?”
A government overly focused on stability wants, at least, to appear to be tough on those who damage the environment or break laws designed to protect it, but a China Daily editorial pointed out that the government’s “inaction in the face of the heaviest air pollution in a month flies in the face of their own promises and their own credibility.” The disconnect between government posturing on the one hand and the reality of citizen discontent on the other was highlighted when a Chinese military expert was ridiculed online after suggesting the sometimes opaque pollution covering the city might be useful in repelling US military laser strikes.
The Beijing government introduced the tiered system last October and the plan’s stronger provisions have yet to be implemented, even during high levels of air pollution. This was the first orange alert for smog in Beijing and maybe the first serious red flag alert for government – with citizens now demanding real responses and not just smoke screens.
By Brian Ryer