Beijing, China – During the cold and bitter winter season in Beijing – capital of the People’s Republic of China – it is common to find people walking the streets with masks covering their faces.
Beijing suffers from serious air pollution, threatening the city’s 21.5 million residents.
In 2015, more than 1.1 million people in China were estimated to have died from air pollution, making it the country with the most deaths resulting from toxic air.
A recent study by Nanjing University’s School of the Environment found tiny particles in the air could be responsible for as many as 30 percent of all deaths in the country – equaling that of smoking.
There are various factors identified as causes of the poisonous pollution. Among them, coal consumption is singled out as the biggest contributor.
Because of this, the smog worsens during winter, when more coal is burned for heating purposes.
About half a billion people in mainland China are currently facing the smog after it moved in on Friday.
The Chinese government has acknowledged the air pollution issue, which has become a major crisis facing the country.
At the opening of the 19th Communist Party Congress held in October, President Xi Jinping, who solidified his position for another five years, highlighted the toxic smog in his opening speech, affirming it is his goal to eliminate it by the end of his second term in 2022.
‘No other choice’
Tung Hsueh-Mei is a receptionist in a student dormitory at a Beijing university. In her 30s, she was born and raised in the capital.
Tung said the smog is a serious problem, but she is used to it by now.
“The smog does not affect me that much. I am an ordinary person so there is no other choice than to just carry on with my life, as there is nothing much I can do about it,” she told Al Jazeera.
Unlike many fellow Beijing residents, Tung chooses not to wear a mask or check the particulate matter level before she goes outside. “Wearing a mask is not very effective,” she explained.
In September, the Chinese government announced future plans to ban the production and sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, and replace them with clean energy automobiles. Beijing and neighbouring Hebei province, the most polluted regions in China, were also ordered by the government to reduce production of harmful air pollutants by 25 percent before the end of the year.
Despite government efforts, Tung has little faith. “It will be great if the government can somehow find a way to solve the problem, but I believe that the problem is even beyond the scale of Xi Jinping’s power.”
Cheng, in his 40s, is a small shop owner originally from Henan province, who relocated to Beijing with his family five years ago.
He takes precautions to protect himself from the smog’s harmful effects.
“When I first came to Beijing five years ago, I didn’t care too much about the air problem. But after having been living in Beijing for a few years, I have become more cautious as I wear a mask and check the PM level before going outside,” said Cheng.
If the smog is extremely serious, he stays inside to avoid inhaling toxic pollutants in the air.
Cheng said Beijing’s air quality was much worse when he first arrived and the situation has improved under Xi’s leadership, who ordered the closure of many factories.
Wang Po-Wen, 18, is a first-year university student. Born in Guizhou province, she moved to Beijing with her family in 2008, the year Beijing hosted the 29th Summer Olympic Games.
“I think that the government is actively listening to its people because they are nervous about the overflow of negative public opinion surrounding the air pollution issue,” said Wang.
But she said a solution isn’t likely to be a quick one.
“I’m young and I’m healthy so I don’t worry too much about my health. But I do worry about my parents and about the older people though,” Wang said.
“If I get a disease from the smog, it will probably be treatable in the future, so I think I have nothing to worry about.”