Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET on 2014-02-14
China's Internet censors on Thursday deleted online references to an official pollution report which described the capital city as nearly unfit for human habitation, while state media tried to limit the damage to Beijing's international image.
The English-language tabloid Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, quoted one of the report's authors as saying that the media had "exaggerated" its findings.
The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences report, released this week, ranked Beijing second to last in the environmental category in an index of 40 world cities.
"The pollution index nears extreme levels, and is near a level that is no longer livable for human beings," the report concluded.
In the overall ranking, Tokyo, London, Paris, New York and Singapore took the top five places, while Shanghai and Beijing ranked 21st and 31st respectively, based on factors such as economic vitality, social stability, culture, urban management, ecology, and city space.
The Chinese government has announced a series of measures aimed at combating pollution, including the smog problem, which is known colloquially as "airpocalypse," including a 10 billion yuan (U.S. $1.65 billion) anti-pollution fund announced by China's cabinet, the State Council, this week.
The fund will offer rewards to local governments that clean up their act, and is targeted at reducing harmful particulate matter air pollution like PM 2.5.
China’s smog has brought large swathes of the country to a standstill, particularly in the north, forcing airports to cancel thousands of flights, schools to close and reducing visibility on city streets.
Beijing plans to shutter hundreds of polluting factories under new pollution rules that come into effect on March 1, official media reported.
But Zhengzhou-based environmental activist Cui Cheng said he didn't place much hope in a government that was so frightened of a scientific report.
"If they get so worried about an article written by experts, as if all hell is going to break loose, then there's not much hope they'll be able to fix the smog problem," he said.
He said the new guidelines were still only on paper.
"I feel there is still too little in the way of a truly strategic shift in the industrial economy," Cui said.
He called on the government to release further evidence detailing measures taken to reduce the smog.
"For example, exactly how much the oil industry has invested in cleaning up, and what the results of that were, and how much smog they now currently contribute," he said.
"They must give people some answers."
The widespread pollution and food safety scandals may be behind a mass exodus of China's millionaires to cleaner lands.
Mainland Chinese applicants made up 91 percent of applications for Australia's investment visa scheme since it was launched in 2012, recent reports said.
And Canada is wading through a backlog of 57,000 applications for similar emigration papers from people in China.
A Beijing resident who gave only his surname Zhao said many ordinary Chinese would also like to leave.
"Put it this way; I've been planning to emigrate for a long time now, because I can't stand it any more," Zhao said. "It's like living in the middle of poison gas."
He described the scene outside his home in the suburb of Tongzhou as a bluish haze made up of industrial emissions.
"It's definitely not fit for human habitation," Zhao said. "There's no doubt at all about that."
He said had become visibly worse two years ago. "Now it's really, really serious," Zhao said. "And it's continuing to get worse."
Around 600 million people are affected by air pollution and smog days that plague northern China, according to a July report from China's State Development and Reform Commission.
And a recent report by the American National Academy of Sciences found that residents of northern China could be losing five years of life expectancy compared with those in the south, which until recently has enjoyed better air quality.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.