When the smog in Beijing gets bad or “crazy bad,” as the U.S. embassy once described the air in a tweet, one can scarcely see across the street. The city’s new skyscrapers disappear into the thick haze. During the day, you can usually make out the sun through the brothy skies, but even at midday, the sun is just a small white saucer, its rays obscured by dense and poisonous clouds. After a day walking through the city, a thin layer of grime covers the skin. Clothes smell like an airport smoking lounge. And that’s a normal bad air day.
On Saturday, the American embassy recorded a peak of 886 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic meter in Beijing. These are the tiny, killer particles of pollution. For the same scale, the World Health Organization says under 25 micrograms per cubic meter is safe. But it’s not just Beijing. On Monday, in Zhejiang province south of Shanghai, 800 miles away, a factory was engulfed in flame, but the air pollution was so bad, for three hours no one noticed the smoke billowing out of the factory. This is less of a surprise considering that the air pollution in Beijing was reported by ABC News as being more concentrated than levels inside forest fires in the United States.
What’s most shocking is that Beijing or a town in Zhejiang province couldn't even crack China’s top 10 cities with the worst air pollution, much less take the foremost spot. According to the state-run China Central Television, that dubious honor went to Shijiazhuang in Hebei province in northeastern China, with eight consecutive days of severe pollution.
Clearly, pollution is one of China’s biggest hurdles if it is to continue the greatest economic expansion in history. Beijing’s reaction to its recent bad air days gives reasons to hope that the government is taking the problem seriously. But the real test lies ahead. To overcome its environmental issues, the new Chinese leadership will have to take on its state-owned companies.