State-run media moved to ward off growing criticism of the ruling Chinese Communist Party on Tuesday over the swathes of choking smog plaguing northern China in recent days, calling for a "united front" against the problem.
Heavy smog has covered around 13 percent of China's territory, causing heavy pollution in 33 major cities, official figures show.
Beijing entered a second day under an "orange" alert under its new warning system introduced last year by the National Meteorological Center.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which monitors air pollution unofficially, tweeted that PM2.5 particulate matter concentrations were at 496, nearly 20 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.
The English-language tabloid Global Times, which has close ties to the party, said those who blame the government are unwilling to take "real action" to combat pollution.
"Smog and haze is bitterly hated by Chinese people, but their determination to eradicate this problem has not transformed into enthusiasm to get involved in real action," the paper said in an editorial on Tuesday.
"Facing the smog and haze, China lacks a unified front," the paper said, without elaborating on what such action might entail.
In an apparent reference to recent critical tweets from state broadcaster CCTV, which were deleted soon after being posted, the Global Times said that criticism wouldn't solve the problem.
"The media likes criticizing the government for failing to manage the air quality, but any voice that asks for the citizenship to take more responsibility will be condemned," it said.
"There are few people willing to give up any part of their interests for the greater good."
CCTV's finance channel posted the tweets last week, hitting out at the government's failure to take any action against the smog.
A second tweet targeted the Beijing municipal government under Wang Anjun. Both were soon deleted.
Then, netizens weighed in with a blistering broadside of satire after People's Liberation Navy Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong told CCTV that the smog could be an effective defense against U.S. laser weapons.
"Well let's not bother trying to control the smog—for sake of the motherland," commented user @xiaodang on the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo.
"What would we do if we got clear skies one day," commented @qishishenma.
And @andiaoluntan quipped: "So didn't you know that it is an act of patriotism to produce smog."
Protecting public health
Huo Daishan, a prominent environmental activist from the northern province of Hebei, said the smog has propelled environmental issues to the top of the political agenda for the first time in 30 years.
But he said government inspection teams sent out in recent days to the worst-hit areas won't necessarily make much difference.
"It depends whether they are investigating the source of the pollution in industrial emissions," Huo said. "If certain polluting industries don't take action [to clean up], then they should be stopped, that's for sure."
"The main priority should be protecting the health of the general public," he said.
"Do they want health, or do they want GDP growth?"
Huo, a photographer who rose to prominence documenting catastrophic pollution along the Huai River, said that the smog has raised the awareness of environmental issues among ordinary Chinese.
"That is one change that has occurred," he said. "There are even private initiatives to measure air pollution among the people, as well as activities to improve water quality."
"The aim is to encourage government and businesses to clean up their act, and to improve the deteriorating environment."
'All just talk'
Meanwhile, Ren Zengjun, who heads the respiratory care center at the No. 1 People's Hospital in Guangzhou, said he has little faith that any measures by the environmental protection bureau will have an impact on pollution.
"Even if the environmental bureau does care about it, what good will that do?" Ren said. "Many departments would have to get involved in implementing [legislation]."
"But can they really close the factories? It's all just talk ... they'll need more than an environmental protection department to sort this out," Ren said.
The Global Times, meanwhile, said that the cause of China's smog is still unknown.
"There is still no authoritative or scientific explanation for this air problem," the paper said.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Bi Zimo and Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.