Authorities in northern China have ordered polluting factories to close, shutting off their power supply in a last-ditch battle against spreading toxic smog and potential industrial disasters ahead of the country's annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing.
The government last weekend named and shamed 18 cities in northern China’s Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei region for continuing to pollute following unannounced undercover checks and night-time inspections as a swathe of toxic smog blanketed the region ahead of the parliamentary sessions.
The environmental protection ministry has warned that heavy pollution will continue until at least Wednesday, ahead of the opening of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on March 3 and the National People's Congress two days later.
Meanwhile, steel plants, pharmaceutical factories and other polluting industries have been ordered to halt production by the Hebei provincial government.
An employee who answered the phone at a steel plant in Hebei's Shijiazhuang city confirmed the order had been made but said the factory hadn't halted production.
"Some factories are undergoing inspections, the smaller ones, but ours hasn't," the employee said. Asked if the factory was still in production on Monday, he replied: "That's right."
An employee surnamed Yuan who answered the phone at an iron and steel trading company said the measures are aimed at battling the smog, but also at limiting the likelihood of industrial accidents in the steel and pharmaceutical industries, which are considered high-risk.
"A lot of the high-risk industries are in partial shutdown at the request of city governments," Yuan said.
"Those with environmental issues, whose pollution controls are incomplete, they all have to halt production," Yuan said. "Once they shut down a few industries and limit the number of vehicles, then there will be less smog."
Asked if they would re-open once the annual parliament was over, he said it was unclear.
"They didn't say, but these were all temporary orders."
He said the industry would likely sustain heavy losses as a result of the shutdowns.
In Hebei's Langfang city, the Wenfang county environmental protection bureau cut off the electrical supply to one factory, according to video of the premises seen by RFA.
"They've taken a padlock and sealed off the electrical supply box," a local resident said. "They don't want the factory in production."
Jiangsu-based environmental activist Wu Lihong said the authorities are trying to create blue skies ahead of the parliamentary sessions, when the eyes of the world will be on China.
"They are taking these temporary measures because they are worried that there will be smog during the parliamentary sessions, as well as [obvious] water and soil pollution," Wu said.
"If the foreign media shoots footage of such pollution, then it will have a negative impact because it will be very embarrassing for such a major country that has pledged to cut emissions."
He said the cutting of of the power supply likely happened because officials higher up knew that the orders were likely to be enforced in a patchy manner, with local governments colluding with polluting enterprises.
"Maybe local officials will turn a blind eye and let them carry on in production, so that's why the electricity is being cut off, so they can't operate," Wu said.
"This is a similar strategy to the one they used before the  Olympics in Beijing," he said. "They shut down all the surrounding industries, and that was how we got our 'blue sky' Olympics."
Fellow environmentalist Ji Shulong agreed.
"They may manage to make the environment look nice but it'll be temporary, I'm telling you," Ji said. "This sudden environmental clean-up is obviously just for the parliamentary sessions."
He said the ruling Chinese Communist Party lacks the ability to follow through on its pledges to clean up the environment.
"They say one thing, and they do another," Ji said. "This clean-up and anti-smog operation ... is just so they can project a nice image ... it's all cosmetic."
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.