China on Monday returned to work after a National Day holiday week marred by heavy air pollution and disrupted transportation, as a major typhoon hit the country's southeastern seaboard.
However, many holidaymakers remained stranded after authorities in northern China shut down major highways and canceled nearly half of scheduled flights on Sunday after heavy smog brought visibility down to less than 1,000 meters (0.6 mile), official media reported.
Nearly half of flights scheduled to depart Beijing's Capital International Airport were canceled after visibility there reached 250-500 meters (820-1,640 feet), while "dozens" of incoming flights were diverted, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Beijing recorded "hazardous" levels of air pollution, prompting competitors and spectators at an LPGA golf event and the China Open tennis championship—which drew Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams—to don surgical face masks.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which conducts its own monitoring of air pollution levels and published them on Twitter, told American citizens to stay indoors and use air purifiers over the weekend.
According to its @BeijingAir Twitter account, levels of 2.5 particulate matter, which experts have identified as the biggest threat to health, rose to "Hazardous" or "Very Unhealthy" levels several times over the weekend.
A Beijing resident surnamed Yang said the smog appeared to have thinned somewhat on Monday.
"It has been very smoggy for the past few days, but it has got a little bit better today," he said. "But there is still smog."
"It's pretty serious, although today is slightly better and we can see the sun a bit more clearly, but it still looks grey and fuzzy," Yang said.
Little effect from measures
He said recent measures to cut the number of coal-fired power stations, which authorities in Beijing have pledged to phase out entirely by 2014, didn't appear to have had much effect yet.
"I don't think there's been much change," he said. "It's very serious, because my kids cough all day long, and this has been going on for a very long time."
All 35 monitoring centers across the city indicated heavy air pollution at the highest level of six, Xinhua quoted the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center as saying.
The density of PM 2.5 (airborne particles of less than 2.5 microns), exceeded 200 micrograms per cubic meter on Sunday, a level regarded as "Very Unhealthy" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Peng Baohong, an environmental activist with the non-government group Green Plains, said the problem appeared to be beyond the government's ability to control.
"We are already experiencing the evil results of too much environmental pollution, and we have realized that the environment needs protection," Peng said. "But the debt we have run up in terms of pollution is too huge."
She drew a parallel between attempts to curb pollution, and the one-child policy aimed at curbing a booming population.
"We have had to pay the price of our family planning policies for the past 50 years, and I guess that we will have to pay the price for our environmental policies for 10 or 20 years," Peng said.
"It is in the interest of the general public to criticize the government's actions," she said. "Otherwise, we'll be the ones who pay that price."
Officials blamed a combination of high humidity and lack of wind to blow pollutants away, Xinhua said, quoting Wang Zifa, a researcher with the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"The city is heavily populated and surrounded by mountains on three sides," Wang said. "As a result, pollutants tend to linger in the air for 40 percent of year."
Beijing was blanketed by beige-colored smog 14 days out of 28 in September, the China Meteorological Administration reported this week, 10 more than that average for the same period in the past two decades.
Spokesman Chen Zhenlin told a news conference that Jiangsu, Shandong, Henan, Shanxi and Hebei provinces and Tianjin city had all experienced five to 10 more smoggy days than during the same period in previous years,
Meanwhile, Typhoon Fitow barreled into China's east coast early Monday packing winds of more than 200 kilometers (124 miles) an hour, killing at least five people and impacting 4.5 million, state media reported.
And authorities have warned that a second typhoon, Danas, is also on the way.
Two men died in Wenzhou city in Zhejiang province, the official news agency Xinhua said, while three people from the city of Ruian died of electric shocks.
One of the victims in Wenzhou, 55-year-old Ni Wenlin, died "when a strong wind blew him off a hill" late Sunday, Xinhua said, while the other, Chen Wanjie, was killed after being buried beneath his duck breeding factory.
Four other people are still missing, state media reported.
Fitow had affected about 4.35 million people in Zhejiang, with houses torn down and grain flooded, Xinhua reported citing the provincial flood control office.
Agence France-Presse reported that authorities had evacuated hundreds of thousands of people on Sunday as Fitow approached the mainland, with tens of thousands of boats called back to harbour, bullet train services suspended and many flights cancelled.
The National Meteorological Center (NMC) issued a red alert, the highest, for the storm as it moved towards the coast.
It is unusual for a typhoon to come ashore in China's southeast during October, at the end of the storm season, reports quoted the weather center as saying.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.