Beijing Issues 'Red Alert' Smog Warning Amid Growing Public Anger

china-smog-dec082015.jpg A couple wears masks against heavy smog in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, Dec. 1, 2015.

Authorities in the Chinese capital on Tuesday issued a red alert smog warning, closing schools and warning people to stay indoors, as toxic smog enveloped the north of the country.

"They are limiting cars based on odd and even license plates, while schools can limit outdoor activities," a Beijing resident surnamed Huang told RFA. "We are getting this from the news."

Beijing's emergency management headquarters advised kindergartens, primary schools, and high schools to suspend classes, banned outdoor operations on construction sites, and ordered some industrial plants to limit or stop production, official media reported.

Heavy trucks were banned, while private car use was limited to odd or even license plate numbers on alternate days, state news agency Xinhua reported.

On Tuesday evening, the U.S. embassy's unofficial monitoring station recorded an air quality index of 326, marked "hazardous" at 24-hour exposure at this level.

Official readings showed the PM 2.5 averaging 234 micrograms per cubic meter in the downtown area, however, as "still weather, reduced cold temperatures and an increase in humidity" prompted the red alert, Xinhua said.

A Beijing resident surnamed Li said the current smog wasn't as strong as last week's "airpocalypse," however, when a yellow alert was issued.

"Visibility here is about one kilometer ... maybe it's because there aren't so many construction sites where I am," Li said.

"I don't think this red alert is so bad; everyone is saying it's nowhere near as bad as the last [smog]."

Link to Paris talks

A resident surnamed Fang said the alert is likely linked to Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent report from the climate talks in Paris.

"We had really serious smog about a week ago, but they didn't issue a red alert then [while he was in Paris]," Fang said.

Northern and eastern China have been choking under heavy smog for most of this week, and an orange alert for air pollution remained in force for the eastern province of Shanxi on Tuesday.

The smog was blamed for a 33-car pile-up in poor visibility in Shanxi, leaving six people dead in visibility of less than 500 meters, Xinhua reported.

Meanwhile, dozens of flights in the eastern province of Zhejiang were delayed as visibility dropped to 250 meters in the provincial capital, Hangzhou, it said.

In Beijing, hundreds of extra buses and dozens of extra subway trains were added to accommodate those forbidden to drive, as the city labored in the brownish air with no wind to blow it away.

Chinese environment minister Chen Jining called a special meeting on Monday night, boosting monitoring teams and calling for greater transparency in pollution reporting, Xinhua said.

The red alert was welcomed by international bodies, including the environmental group Greenpeace, which called it "a welcome sign of a different attitude from the Beijing government."

And the World Health Organization (WHO)'s China representative Schwartländer said the alert "means, first and foremost, that the Beijing authorities are taking air quality, and related health issues, very seriously."

Widespread public anger

Fang said there is widespread public anger over the smog, but that it is rarely expressed owing to strong controls on freedom of expression.

"People have a huge problem with the smog; intellectuals have a huge problem with it," he said. "The public have no way to express their anger, so all we get is the unified message from the [state-run] media."

"But in private conversation ... the whole issue of smog gets people very riled up."

Fang said China's massive environmental problems are forcing people to educate themselves about the effects of pollution on their health.

"Awareness is getting stronger and stronger," he said. "We have never had such mass online criticism before ... This has affected Beijing, eastern and northern China, for three or four days in a row, and we have reached a point from which it will be hard to turn back."

Beijing University environmental management professor Mei Fengqiao said the smog is a direct result of the blind pursuit of economic growth over all other goals.

"Our transportation system can't cope under the pressure of all these motor vehicles, so we need some long-term measures, although ... these are basically not going to happen," Mei said.

"We will have to figure out how to move industry out, and how to disperse the population, or we will be paying back a debt taken out ... by our own mistakes."

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Si-yuen for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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