By Jack Hu
China welcomed 2017 with a thick, lasting smog, souring many people’s mood for the new year. Public discontent over the severe pollution hanging over northern China for nearly two weeks has been building, and the lack of solution has led some to question the efficacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule on social media.
A particularly shocking illustration of just how bad the situation is came in the form of photographs showing high-speed trains in Beijing covered in a thick layer of grime after passing through the severe smog areas. The shots went viral and spurred hot discussion on popular Chinese platform Weibo. A selection of comments in reaction to the photos are below:
Some domestic media outlets picked up the story and confirmed that the photos were taken on January 2 after a high-speed train traveled through Shanghai to Beijing. The railway authority also responded to the news report stating that it is not unusual to see trains covered in dirt when air quality is low.
Air pollution readings in northern Chinese cities have been many times above the World Health Organization-designated safe level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 pollutant, and the year 2017 began with red alerts in 24 cities where the levels of PM 2.5 have been above 300 for more than 72 hours.
A post from well-known Chinese film director Lu Chuan, which quotes a doctor’s remarks on the potential harmful effects of smog, has been forwarded over a thousand times:
Zhong Nanshan, a prominent academic, has warned that smog could cause severe diseases including cancer. Nonprofit group Berkeley Earth in California has estimated that smog has led to 1.6 million premature deaths per year in China.
Yet many comments online have labeled criticism of the smog as anti-China. Even Wang Zhanyang, a professor at the Chinese Communist Party’s subsidiary Central Socialist College, could not bear to see such extreme patriotism and voiced out against the political labeling on Weibo:
Meanwhile, state media continues to highlight efforts in dealing with smog. People’s Daily reported that a primary school in Shijiazhuang, one of the most polluted cities in Hebei province, held physical education class for students in a huge inflatable building filled with purified air. The school’s measure has attracted both positive comments and mockery:
Despite the thick smog, many Chinese still chose to gather in Tiananmen Square early on New Year’s Day to watch the raising national flag:
The patriotic crowd attracted sarcastic comments online that called them “human-flesh air purifiers”.
As the world’s biggest carbon emitter, China depends on coal for more than 60 percent of its electricity. The government has announced its intention to reduce hazardous emissions from coal-fired power plants by 60 percent over the next five years, but its overall emissions will peak by about 2030 before starting to decline during the Paris Climate deal in 2015.
This article originally appeared on Global Voices.