Winters in Beijing are grim. It’s not just the subzero temperatures and shortened days that feel so oppressive; the year-end chill means even more coal is burned for heating, blanketing the Chinese capital in thick smog.
City authorities this week issued their first pollution “red alert” of 2016 — the highest level of warning. It is forecast to last five days. Some of the city’s busiest roads have been closed and at least 273 flights were grounded at Beijing Capital International Airport, according to state media.
Those planes that did depart were packed, as Beijing’s more affluent residents fled the “airpocolypse” for China’s warmer, thus less smoggy, south. The unlucky majority who remained were forced to breath air clogged with more than 500 destructive PM2.5 particles per cubic meter. (The WHO ranks safe level as under 25.)
“I could hardly see the building opposite mine this morning,” Zhang Lin, 32, a stay-at-home mom with a 4-year-old girl, tells TIME. “My daughter often coughs this winter for no reason. The doctor said it’s because of the air pollution.”
Things were even worse in industrial zones outside the capital. On Monday, average PM2.5 levels in the steel-producing city of Handan reached 780. According to the environmental group Greenpeace, more than 460 million people across northern China experienced “heavy” or “hazardous” pollution — equivalent to the populations of the U.S., Canada and Mexico combined. Hospitals were packed with people suffering from breathing problems.
“The scale of the red-alert measures show that the Chinese government is taking air pollution seriously,” says Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Dong Liansai. “However, the ongoing ‘airpocalypse’ is further evidence that China must implement far stricter limitations on coal consumption and accelerate the restructuring of the economy away from the heavily polluting sectors.”
There is also a political dimension to the “red alert,” evidenced by extensive domestic media coverage of efforts to curb its excesses (measures range from banning charcoal barbecues to prohibiting the use of spray paint). Officials walk a tightrope between playing down the problem and reassuring the public that it is being tackled.
Earlier this month, antipollution protesters staged a demonstration in the central Chinese city of Chengdu, gathering in the busy shopping district and hanging pollution face masks on statues. Riot police eventually shut down the city center and several people were detained.
The World Health Organization says China is the world’s deadliest country for air pollution, a scourge estimated to claim a million lives across the nation each year. Although the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has declared war on the issue, overcapacity in state industries such as coal and steel is the primary cause.
For the CCP, the unrest caused by pollution must be weighed against the potential strife sparked by millions of unemployed state workers. Many see the “red alert” as the authorities’ way of preempting further protests while giving the impression the problem is being addressed.
“My friends always make jokes about the air pollution, but I think it’s sad, it’s not right to get used to it,” adds Zhang. “I wish our government would be more concerned about people’s health rather than just economic growth.”
— With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing and video by Zhang Chi / Beijing