China reeled from a long cloud of choking smog swathing the country on Monday as prominent experts and state media alike hit out at official pollution monitoring practices and called for an effective environmental policy.
On a weekend that saw some of China's worst air pollution on record, Beijing Normal University researcher Mao Da called for the Chinese Academy of Metereological Science to have its status as a monitoring station revoked, alleging irregularities in the way previous assessments had been carried out.
"This institute behaved irresponsibly and faked and covered up data in its assessment of the garbage incinerator project in Qinhuangdao West, particularly when it came to public participation," Mao wrote on his verified microblog account.
"This sort of thing is common in all of the bodies charged with carrying out environmental assessments," he said.
As Mao blew the whistle on one institution, readings of the most damaging PM 2.5 particles measured as "Beyond Index," were off the scale in Beijing, as measured by monitoring equipment within the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The smog stretched around 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) to the southwest, prompting flight cancellations, highway closures, and an end to sporting activities, as patients seeking help for respiratory problems clogged hospitals.
Former news photographer and environmental activist Huo Daishan said it has become hard to get a clear picture of the true extent of pollution in China because of the official habit of obfuscating and covering up data.
"The air pollution issue has stood out this year among all the other issues, but environmental protection is not complicated," Huo said.
"If they hadn't faked the figures ... pollution in China wouldn't be as bad as it is today."
"They do it to evade responsibility for cleaning it up and to avoid administrative blame," Huo added. "One lot of fakery means another [set of data] has to be faked, and another, and another, layer upon layer."
"Officials have their interests; enterprises have theirs," he said.
Across China, people in the worst-hit areas have been advised to "avoid outdoor activities and, if they do have to go out, to wear a protective mask."
Netizens tweeted that many outlets had run out of masks, and that department stores were fast selling out of air filters and purifiers.
Schoolchildren remained at home on Monday in Beijing, and some factories and construction sites reduced or stopped work until the air improved, official statements said.
Emergency measures issued by the Beijing environmental protection bureau called on 54 factories to reduce emissions by 30 percent and on 28 construction sites to suspend work.
On Saturday night, a reading at the widely followed but unofficial U.S. Embassy monitoring service in Beijing clocked PM 2.5 fine-particulate matter at 886 micrograms per cubic meter, the highest since monitoring began in 2007.
Current air quality charts rate a PM 2.5 reading of 300-500 as "hazardous," but the weekend's readings were ranked at 755.
The Chinese government, which only began monitoring PM 2.5 last year after sniping at the U.S. for doing so on its turf, reported pollution as "hazardous" in 33 cities across the country.
Even China's tightly controlled official media gave top billing to pollution coverage, with pollution stories and editorials calling for tougher measures to protect air quality.
"The government ... needs to have measures to reduce the use of government vehicles and the pollutants emitted by industries," the English-language China Daily said in an editorial on Monday.
"Other measures are also needed to reduce traffic congestion, which will greatly reduce the exhaust fumes discharged by cars."
The Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Communist Party, chided the government for thinking it could "guide public opinion" and called for truthful environmental reports.
"In future, the government should publish truthful environmental data to the public," the paper said. "Governments cannot always think about how to intervene to 'guide public opinion.'"
However, official media said fresh winds were likely to disperse the smog on Tuesday.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.