A pollution index measuring PM2.5 – particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres – reached a reading of 1,000 in some parts of Harbin yesterday, the gritty capital of Heilongjiang province.
A level above 300 is considered hazardous, while the World Health Organisation recommends a daily level of no more than 20.
These were the first known readings of 1,000 since China began releasing figures on PM2.5 in January 2012 – it was not immediately clear if the devices used for monitoring could give readings higher than that.
The smog not only forced all primary and middle schools to suspend classes, but also shut the airport and some public bus routes, the official Xinhua news agency reported. It said the emergency was being blamed on the first day of the heating being turned on in the city for winter. Visibility was reportedly reduced to ten metres.
The smog was expected to continue for at least 24 hours.
“I couldn’t see anything outside the window of my apartment, and I thought it was snowing,” said Wu Kai, 33, a housewife and mother.
“Then I realised it wasn’t snow. I have not seen the sun for a long time.”
She said her husband went to work in a mask, that he could barely see a few metres ahead of him and that his usual bus had stopped running.
“It’s scary, too dangerous. How could people drive or walk on such a day?”
Air quality in Chinese cities is of increasing concern to the country’s stability-obsessed leadership because it plays into popular resentment over political privilege and rising inequality in the world’s second-largest economy.
Domestic media have run stories describing the expensive air purifiers government officials enjoy in their homes and offices, alongside reports of special organic farms so cadres need not risk suffering from recurring food safety scandals.
The government has announced plans over the years to tackle the pollution problem but has made little apparent progress.
Users of China’s popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblogging site reacted with both anger and bitter sarcasm over Harbin’s air pollution.
One user wrote: “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!”
Other parts of north-eastern China also experienced severe smog, including Tangshan, two hours east of Beijing, and Changchun, the capital of Jilin province, which borders Heilongjiang.
Last week, Beijing city released a colour-coded alert system for handling air pollution emergencies, to include the temporary halt of construction, factory production, outdoor barbecues and the setting off of fireworks.
Beijing suffered its own smog emergency last winter when the PM2.5 surpassed 900 on one particularly bad day in January.
Last month, China’s Cabinet released an action plan that aims to make a small reduction in the country’s heavy reliance on coal to below 65 per cent of total energy usage by 2017.
According to Chinese government statistics, coal consumption accounted for 68.4 per cent of total energy use in 2011.