On Monday, the Chinese city of Harbin and its 11 million citizens came to a full stop after overwhelming smog choked the city's airport, shut down schools, and froze traffic on the city's roads.
To get the idea of how bad the smog was, imagine standing in the middle of a forest fire and trying to breathe. "An index measuring PM2.5, or particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), reached a reading of 1,000 in some parts of Harbin, the gritty capital of northeastern Heilongjiang province and home to some 11 million people," Reuters explains. The number you want, and the number the World Health Organization recommends, is anything under 20 (that is not a typo, two-zero.) Anything above 300 is very bad. Harbin is around 700 units over the hazardous level.
"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says those readings are 'extremely rare' in the U.S. and typically occur during events such as forest fires," reports The Wall Street Journal, putting the China's environmental in stark perspective. Xinhua added that the visibility was less than 50 meters (around 160 feet). While these pollution problems are rare in the other parts of the world, they've become distressingly common in some parts of China, particularly Beijing.
And in China, the smog isn't just an environmental or health story. It's become political. In order to protect yourself from smog, you need things like air purifiers, which only the privileged elite have, Reuters reports. Some of those same privileged people work in the government and continually promise to fix the smog problem. Yet, they've made little progress and on days like these, social media outlets like Weibo light up with anger. "After years of effort, the wise and hard-working people of Harbin have finally managed to skip both the middle-class society and the communist society stages, and have now entered a fairyland society," one user wrote. Beijing made another one of those promises last month, and vowed to control pollution-inducing industries by 2017.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.