BEIJING – China banned outdoor school sports and cookouts as it grappled with a fourth straight day of thick, choking smog, a pollution problem that a recent report says makes Beijing "barely suitable" for living.
Beijing maintained its orange pollution alert Monday, the second-highest level of an official warning and response system introduced nationwide last October. The city has been spraying streets with water to reduce dust in a severe smog attack that has made the Chinese capital's pollution 10 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.
"More forceful measures need to be taken," said Ma Jun, a leading voice on China's environmental crisis and director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Other areas in north and central China have been blighted by smog for days. Areport by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences concluded that the Chinese capital was "barely suitable" for living.
Ma said the government should ground its huge vehicle fleet and be prepared to take half of all cars off the streets as China did to bring back blue skies during the 2008 Summer Olympics.
If officials ever announce the "red" top-level alert, half of Beijing's cars are supposed to be automatically grounded.
The reliance on cheap high-sulfur coal as China's chief energy source and a lack of clean-coal technology are blamed for the extraordinary pollution plaguing China cities.
Ma welcomed a recent government agreement to disclose discharges by certain plants but noted that having tough laws on the books does not matter if they are ignored by authorities, as has been the case.
"Beijing has a huge budget to deal with the problem, but I am troubled by the gaps in our management system such as weak enforcement, so factories can still break discharge standards, even in these days," he said.
Beijing has not only shuttered barbecues but also restricted production output at factories and power plants.
In Hebei province, where smog from heavy industry drifts to adjacent Beijing, officials have begun demolishing expendable plants in polluting industries such as concrete. Despite its distinction as China's most polluted province, Hebei hopes to hosts the 2022 Winter Olympic Games along with Beijing.
A top environmental officer in China said the country must aggressively cut its reliance on coal, according to Bloomberg.
"China's pollution is at an unbearable stage," Li Junfeng, director general of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, said in Beijing. "It's like a smoker who needs to quit smoking at once; otherwise, he will risk getting lung cancer."
Every morning, Zhang Lequn, mother of a 9-year-old girl, checks her iPhone apps for the latest warnings on Beijing's air quality.
"I really wish we could move to places like Hainan province," an island in the South China Sea, said Zhang, 35, who notes that the U.S. Embassy's online air pollution reading is usually higher than the Chinese government statistic, as it was Monday.
"I'd rather believe the worse one," she said.
At Zhang's daughter's school, Dougezhuang Central Primary, in eastern Beijing, Principal Hu Huanchun says physical education classes are moved indoors during a smog alert.
"I wish our government could take stricter measures to clean our air and let our kids have more time playing outside," said Hu, 44. "When I was a kid, Beijing had blue skies."
Face masks are common in Beijing, but many people don't bother with them. Zhang Shang and her 8-year-old granddaughter wore U.S.-made face masks on the way home from school Monday in central Beijing.
"From last year, I felt pollution had become so high we had to wear masks," said Zhang, 67. "Government and society need to do so much, but what can we ordinary people do?"
At the LG Twin Towers office building in central Beijing, security guard Zhang Xiaotian, 20, lowered his mask Monday to have a smoke. "We have to wear these masks, but isn't this just fog?" he asked, repeating a claim that China has told its people for years.
Beijing's Capital Civilization Office, the state agency that tried, and failed, to stop Chinese from their habit of spitting in public before the 2008 Summer Olympics, has launched an information campaign citywide to explain what is "smog."
The government recommends that the young and elderly stay indoors and that all refrain from barbecuing a favorite meal, mutton kebabs, until the smog dissipates. Some may not get the message.
Smog "is nothing to me," says Peng Zhixian, 54, a smoker who says he doesn't like the masks because they make it hard to breathe. "When I was a worker in a steel factory, I got used to bad air quality."
Contributing: Sunny Yang