The Chinese capital endured another day under an air quality “red alert” on Wednesday, with schools still closed, half of all cars kept off the roads and factories shut. But in other cities across northern China, tens of millions of people went about their daily routines in toxic air that was far worse than Beijing’s.
In Anyang, Henan province, the air quality index read 999 at 3 p.m., three times worse than in Beijing and at the top of the scale. Handan, in Hebei province, was not much better, at 822. And in the same province, the city of Shijiazhuang, a bit closer to Beijing, registered 460.
By United States standards, anything above 300 is “hazardous,” meaning people should stay indoors.
So while Beijing officials issued their first code-red alert, cities that are even more polluted enacted milder emergency plans, or none at all. There was no wholesale shutdown of coal-burning factories. Children continued to attend schools without air purifiers.
The patchwork policies pointed to a major shortcoming of efforts by Chinese officials to battle air pollution and protect residents from its effects.
The variety of emergency plans and rules means that many residents of northern China are living under much looser health and safety standards than their counterparts in Beijing. The red alert in the capital has led residents to take more precautions — many more people are wearing facemasks outdoors now, for example. Even members of the People’s Armed Police marching in Tiananmen Square wore masks for the first time.
The laxer policies outside the capital also mean that the sources of pollution that afflict Beijing are not being addressed by the red alert regulations: Most of the pollution comes from coal-burning factories in Hebei, Henan and other provinces, not from Beijing itself.
Some experts said that Beijing’s red alert was a watershed moment, though, and that other provinces could feel pressure to impose stricter measures during awful smog attacks — if only to lessen some of the pollutants from their factories blowing to Beijing, a showcase metropolis of more than 20 million people and home to the Communist Party leadership.
“Each city is still fighting its own game,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a nongovernmental organization that promotes transparency in pollution reporting. “It’s still very hard to trust what the others are talking about. We need a new level of transparency if we want to coordinate this regional pollution control.”