Aaron Back/Josh Chin
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called Tuesday for action to alleviate pollution, representing the highest-level acknowledgment to date of hazardous air-quality levels across much of China in recent weeks.
Mr. Wen's comments suggest concern among officials that the issue could become a political problem for the top leadership.
'Recent smoggy weather is affecting people's production and their health,' Mr. Wen said during a meeting with industry leaders and other private citizens, according to a statement posted on the central government's website.
'We should take certain and effective measures to accelerate industrial restructuring, and push forward energy conservation and emissions reduction,' Mr. Wen said. His call to address the issue also was broadcast on China's nationally televised evening-news program on Tuesday.
Mr. Wen's comments follow a similar call two weeks ago from Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is widely expected to succeed Mr. Wen as premier in March. 'We should strengthen efforts to enforce environmental protection laws and remind people to protect themselves,' Mr. Li said, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.
The comments came on the third straight day of gray, choked skies over Beijing. Levels of fine particulate pollution, known as PM2.5, have been at 'hazardous' levels in the city since early Sunday morning, according to pollution monitors at the U.S. Embassy in eastern Beijing. China's Ministry of Environmental Protection said the smog was part of a cloud covering much of eastern and central China with an area totaling 1.3 million square kilometers, or more than three times the size of California.
Tuesday's air-pollution levels marked the fourth bout of heavy smog to hit the region this month. Two weeks ago the city of Beijing for the first time activated a new plan restricting construction and industrial activity, curbing vehicle use by government officials and ordering schools to limit outside activity. The move was prompted when levels of PM2.5 hit more than 25 times the top recommended standard in the U.S. Beijing has since said it plans to tighten vehicle emissions standards, among other measures.
The pollution levels have spurred critical coverage in China's normally docile state-run media, with TV news broadcasts showing pollution so intense it limits visibility to a few meters in some places. Xinhua on Tuesday reported that a pediatric hospital in downtown Beijing has treated a record 9,000 children this month, mostly for flu, pneumonia, tracheitis, bronchitis and asthma.
In one incident two weeks ago covered by state-run media, low visibility conditions in the eastern province of Zhejiang prevented locals from noticing that a furniture factory had been on fire for four hours.
The issue puts China's new leaders─including Mr. Li and Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as president in March─in a tight spot. Surveys and conversation on China's vibrant social-networking services show increased public concerns over pollution. Mr. Xi noted the issue in a national address in November when he was named the Chinese Communist Party's new top leader. At the same time, Chinese leaders are leery of making moves that could hinder economic growth, and any attempt to impose meaningful restrictions on polluters would face opposition from powerful state-owned enterprises and local governments that depend on them for employment and revenue.
In one sign of public dissatisfaction, Chinese real-estate mogul Pan Shiyi on Tuesday used his widely read account on Sina Corp.'s Weibo microblogging service to call for action from the National People's Congress. The body is China's legislature, though in practice it rubber-stamps the decisions made by senior Communist Party leaders.
'Controlling air pollution requires the participation of every citizen. Most important is implementing laws,' wrote Mr. Pan, himself a member of the NPC. 'I will use my position as an NPC delegate to submit the results of this vote to the NPC and the government.'
Mr. Pan also held a vote on his account on the popularity of such a move. The unscientific poll showed nearly 32,000 microbloggers said they agreed, while about 250 said they were opposed and just over 120 said they weren't sure.
Still, some questioned whether the law would have an impact in a country where enforcement is often lax. 'Can you get a law passed? Once it's passed, can you enforce it? Will there be supervision?' one Sina Weibo user wrote in response to Mr. Pan's poll.
Aaron Back/Josh Chin