Facemasks are hanging for sale at a beverage store near Tiananmen Square in Beijing as the capital of China was blanketed by heavy smog on Wednesday. Photo: AP
Public opinion in China was choked with depression, fear and anger, as large swaths of the country remained shrouded in dangerously high levels of smog and the Beijing government prolonged its yellow alert till Saturday.
Wednesday was the fifth day since the environmental department issued an orange alert for smog in Beijing. Highways have been shut down, flights canceled, and construction work and some vehicles are restricted in order to ease pollution.
However, economic losses are meager compared with torrential waves of complaints by disgruntled city dwellers.
The blurred skyline and "disappeared buildings" used to be butt of jokes for people previously, and mocking pictures and bitter banter was popular online. The sentiment changed noticeably during this round of smog. Having experienced repeated hits of the smog, a lot of people know it's not a laughing matter and wonder if there is a cure to this problem or if they will have to live with it for the rest of their lives.
"I started to feel grief after having to breathe such polluted air for so long. But what can I do?" a Beijing resident asked.
A fictional video that went viral on Wednesday portrays the future Beijing residents as people who have grown long nose hair to adapt to life under the smog.
"If you don't change the smog, the smog will change you," says the video, which has been viewed over 10 million times and liked over 10,000 times on Sina Weibo on Wednesday.
A separate post that went viral showed pictures of a high-speed train covered in brownish dirt after traveling through smog-haunted regions from Xuzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province to Beijing.
"This is not funny … This is the land that we live on. How did it turn into something like this … I want to live, not just survive!!" read one of the most liked comments under the post on Weibo.
China on Tuesday issued its first-ever national red alert for fog but due to heavy air pollution, many cities in North China were actually shrouded in smog.
With poor visibility, the Beijing government on Wednesday shut down several highways, including the Sixth Ring Road, and halted airport shuttle services. Flights to and from Beijing have been either canceled or delayed. The city also shut down several subway stations, restricted the flow of passengers, and ordered the trains on some elevated metro lines to slow down to ensure safety.
Apart from posting pictures of smog-covered cities on WeChat, suggestions of fleeing the heavily polluted cities are ever louder.
Experts say the smog will profoundly change China in many ways. In his commentary published on caixin.com, Wang Dingding, a Peking University professor, said people will first move to smaller cities but if the environment continues to deteriorate, China's middle- and high-income groups will seek to emigrate overseas.
His opinion was echoed by a report by thepaper.cn that documented how the smog in Beijing changed the life of three mothers - one escaped the capital for Southwest China, one equipped her home with air filters and the third became a staunch environmental activist.
"My greatest fear is that my child cannot breathe freely," said Tian Tian, one of the three.
Hard to believe
The heavy smog has also been corroding the government's credibility.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection told yicai.com that figures from the China National Environmental Monitoring Center show air pollution levels in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region have been decreasing on a yearly basis since 2013. Amid heavy smog, a lot people find it hard to believe.
With the start of a new year and the lingering smog, angry netizens have been reposting a promise made by Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun back in 2014 that he would "let people take his head" if the smog problem in Beijing was not resolved by 2017.
On December 22, the Beijing government published a letter in the Beijing Daily to thank the local residents for their cooperation during a period of severe smog from December 16 to 21. The letter has infuriated rather than appeased Net users, with many asking why the government is not apologizing.
"The smog is determined by many factors, including China's overall energy consumption, which depends heavily on fossil fuels," Niu Fengrui, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.
Without addressing the energy problem, "even if the mayor of Beijing is changed 100 times, the smog still won't be cleared," he said.