Beijing endured a third day of pollution at hazardous levels on Sunday, as authorities warned that a thick cloud of smog may not lift from the Chinese capital until midweek.
While those venturing outside wore face masks, dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei went one step further, posting pictures of himself on Twitter in a gas mask.
As the dense smog shrouded large swathes of northern China, flights were cancelled and traffic delayed as visibility was reduced to 100 metres in some areas.
The dangerously poor air quality was highlighted by a steady stream of news broadcasts on state television, many of which warned residents against venturing outside.
The pollution also provoked China’s huge number of microbloggers to take to the Internet, with some high-profile web-users calling for a re-evaluation of China’s rampant modernisation.
Rapid economic growth has led to a dramatic increase in the consumption of coal and clogged city streets with cars.
“The foreign media is laughing at us. I agree with their laughter,” said Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run Global Times newspaper on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
“This is a warning to the Government and Beijing’s citizens. We have to think about what kind of modernisation we want and how to manage it.”
Hu said the pollution issue would be on the front page of his newspaper on Monday.
Beijing-based Ai, 55, an outspoken critic of China’s communist government, posted three pictures of himself on Twitter standing against a white background wearing a gas mask, his beard frizzing out beneath. But he did not make any verbal comment.
Beijing’s municipal environment warning centre issued its second alert in two days, warning people to avoid outdoor physical activity.
The centre also urged government officials to set an example to other residents, by not using their cars.
Air quality in Beijing showed small airborne particles with a diameter small enough to deeply penetrate the lungs at a reading as high as 993 micrograms per cubic metre on Saturday evening, the warning centre said.
The World Health Organization says the figure for such particles, known as PM2.5, should ideally be no more than 25 micrograms per cubic metre.
High levels have been linked to health problems including respiratory disease, heart disease and lung cancer.
A reading shown on the United States embassy website in Beijing was above 800 micrograms per cubic metre at the height of the pollution Saturday. But it was at 375 at 5pm on Sunday (0900 GMT).
Official PM2.5 figures have only been monitored in China’s major cities since the beginning of last year.
The lack of official data makes it difficult to compare the recent smog with previous cases of pollution, said Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.
“But it is interesting to see that residents have been warned about the dangers of pollution by official media,” Ma told AFP.
“This has never happened before, and is a result of the transparency that we now have with the figures.”
The pollution is expected to engulf Beijing until Wednesday before wind arrives to blow it away, according to a weather report from the meteorological station, Xinhua news agency said.
Ten flights had been cancelled and five delayed by more than an hour at Beijing Airport by 11am (0300 GMT) Sunday, the airport said. However, flights were departing on schedule by the afternoon.
China’s air quality is among the worst in the world, international organisations say, citing massive coal consumption and car-choked city streets in the world’s biggest auto market.