BEIJING — Sitting on a park bench in downtown Beijing on Tuesday afternoon, Wang Kuang paused to consider the air in front of his face.
The sky in Beijing is often a murky color, something between gray and brown. But the past few days have been particularly bad: hundreds of flights canceled, sections of highway temporarily closed and entire buildings seemingly vanished from the horizon.
"I worry about whether this is pollution or fog," said Wang, a 31-year-old who works in sports ticketing and merchandising.
On state television and much of Chinese-language media, the darker days of Beijing frequently are explained by one word: fog. While at times that may be true, there's no question that the capital — crammed with cars and a population that's reportedly grown beyond 19 million — is choking on pollution.
The distance between the official line on Beijing's bad air and a reality that's as obvious as the sky above is proving to be a challenge for the Chinese government. As with several other high-profile cases this year, the Internet in China, though constrained by censorship, has made traditional propaganda approaches more difficult.
When public opinion amplified by online forums swells to levels that call for "guidance" by the Communist Party of China, officials are caught between contradicting earlier statements or continuing to insist on explanations that sometimes border on the nonsensical. Missteps in either direction run the risk of being criticized at an online speed that outstrips the censors' ability to delete.
The problem is especially acute with situations _such as pollution or the public outcry in July about a high-speed train crash site — that tap into worries about whether the average person's well-being is protected in the rush of China's economic expansion.
"We still spare no effort to develop the automobile industry, the semiconductor industry and other industries with a high degree of pollution, how can the air be good," wrote one Chinese online user at Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like site with more than 200 million users. "It's a consequence of a government only paying attention to short-term benefits, and the people are the innocent victims."
From last Friday through Monday, the Xinhua state news service carried reports of "fairly good" to various levels of "slightly polluted" conditions in Beijing. As the air worsened, sometimes seeming to acquire an odor, there was reference to "medium" levels of pollution.
The Global Times, a state-controlled tabloid with nationalist leanings, reported Monday that an engineer at the Beijing Meteorological Bureau had "refuted the idea that the fog is a result of air pollution."
Instead, according to the state engineer, the fog was created by a large amount of water vapor near the ground and a drop in temperature.
Many Chinese apparently are unconvinced.
State media said that the country's largest online retail site, akin to eBay, sold more than 30,000 cotton and respiratory masks on Sunday alone, with more than 20,000 of them going to customers in Beijing.
A monitoring system at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which reports smaller and more dangerous particles of pollution than the Chinese government does, recorded conditions between "very unhealthy" and "hazardous" during the same four-day period Xinhua reported. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines the latter category as needing "health warnings of emergency conditions."
At one point Sunday evening, the readings for the particulate matter known as PM 2.5 were so high, climbing past the bounds of hazardous itself, that the embassy was left noting them as "Beyond Index." Experts consider PM 2.5 to be especially dangerous because it's tiny enough, far thinner than a human hair, to enter the lungs.
Beijing has announced that it will include PM 2.5 in its public updates on air pollution nationwide — but not until 2016. Apparently in response to frustrations with that timetable, the Ministry of Environmental Protection recently indicated that schedules are flexible for local governments.
On Tuesday, a state-run English-language newspaper, China Daily, quoted the deputy director of the Beijing Health Bureau as saying that lung cancer in the city increased by 60 percent in the past decade. The official, Mao Yu, said there wasn't an apparent rise in Beijing's smoking rate during that time.
The paper also interviewed Zhi Xiuyi, the director of the Lung Cancer Treatment Center at Capital Medical University, who said that "increasing air pollution might be largely blamed for that."
The newspaper, however, is aimed at foreigners, so most Chinese wouldn't have read the article.
The same is true for the U.S. Embassy air data, published on Twitter, a site that's blocked in China.
Using software that allows them to circumvent online censorship programs, some users have posted the embassy numbers on Sina Weibo.
One Sina user said Tuesday, echoing a common frustration on the site: "No one believes in the government, people now choose to take the index from the embassy. How pathetic."
There were some users, though, who pushed back against that sentiment: "Those people from the American Embassy are bad people! Why do some people believe that outsiders are more honest than our own people? It's dangerous!"
At the Beijing park, Wang Kuang had spoken about the issue of pollution for a few minutes when his mother walked over. The 56-year-old woman, a civil servant surnamed Zheng, reminded everyone present that "our country has done a lot for environmental protection."
Zheng, who didn't give her first name, did allow that "because I'm not an expert on this subject, it's hard to tell with my bare eyes."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011