China pollution anger spills into state media, prompts official transparency

BEIJING (AFP) - Public anger in China at dangerous levels of air pollution, which blanketed Beijing in acrid smog, spread on Monday as state media queried official transparency and the nation's breakneck development.

The media joined Internet users in calling for a re-evaluation of China's modernisation process, which has seen rapid urbanisation and dramatic economic development at the expense of the environment.

Dense smog shrouded large swathes of northern China at the weekend, cutting visibility to 100 metres in some areas and forcing flight cancellations. Reports said dozens of building sites and a car factory in the capital halted work as an anti-pollution measure.

Doctors at two of the city's major hospitals said the number of patients with respiratory problems had increased sharply in the past few days, state media reported.

"Now it has been dark with pollution for three days, at least people are starting to realise how important the environment is," said one posting on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

At the height of the smog Beijing authorities said readings for PM2.5 - particles small enough deeply to penetrate the lungs - hit 993 micrograms per cubic metre, almost 40 times the World Health Organisation's safe limit.

Experts quoted by state media blamed low winds, saying fog had mixed with pollutants from vehicles and factories and been trapped by mountains north and west of Beijing. Coal burning in winter was also a factor, they added.

In an editorial on Monday, the state-run Global Times called for more transparent figures on pollution an urged the government to change its "previous method of covering up the problems and instead publish the facts".

Officials in China have a long history of covering up environmental and other problems by not releasing information.

Earlier this month a chemical spill into a river was only publicly disclosed five days after it happened, and authorities were widely criticised for initially denying the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.

"The choice between development and environmental protection should be made by genuinely democratic methods," the Global Times said. "Environmental problems shouldn't be mixed together with political problems."

Official PM2.5 statistics have only been released for China's biggest conurbations since the beginning of last year, and expanded to cover 74 cities earlier this month.

The paper ran a story on differences between air quality index (AQI) figures given by Chinese authorities and the US embassy in Beijing - which are correlated with but not directly equivalent to pollutant concentrations.

The tightly-controlled media has previously raised concerns over health problems linked to industrialisation. Observers say the statistics' increasing availability has forced them to confront the issue more directly.

The China Daily called on Beijing's five million car owners and officials who use state-owned cars to rethink their driving habits and urged the government to tackle industrial pollution.

"In the middle of a rapid urbanisation process, it is urgent for China to think about how such a process can press forward without compromising the quality of urban life with an increasingly worse living environment," it said in an editorial.

Smog levels eased in the capital on Monday, with the national monitoring centre putting the PM2.5 AQI figure at 183, or "light pollution", in the evening - although the US embassy gave it a "hazardous" 335.

Levels remained high in many parts of China, with PM 2.5 AQI standing at 405 in Zhengzhou south of Beijing and 342 in Xian to the southwest.

Share prices of environment-related companies surged, with face mask producer Shanghai Dragon soaring by its 10 per cent daily limit.

The smog dominated discussion on Sina Weibo. "This pollution is making me so angry," said one user, posting a picture of herself wearing a face mask.