BEIJING, Jan. 22 (Xinhua) -- For lawmakers and political advisors at the ongoing annual sessions in China's capital, the city's new association with the "Beijing cough" is far less welcome than its fame for roast duck and opera.
Some of them say the label, used to mock Beijing's poor air quality, is insulting, but most acknowledge that the term depicts reality and is prompting efforts to fight pollution.
With the first session of the 14th Beijing Municipal People's Congress opening on Tuesday and the first session of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) opening on Monday, the "Beijing cough" has become a hot topic.
"Teachers and students from our academy need to take deep and quick breaths while practising traditional operas, which makes them inhale much more pollutants than ordinary people," said Zhou Long, deputy head of the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, and also a member of the CPPCC's municipal committee.
The term "Beijing cough" has been in use since as early as the 1990s among foreigners, many of whom experienced chronic respiratory problems when they arrived in Beijing due to the city's dry and polluted air. But it did not become well-known until recently, when more health problems directly attributable to the current air pollution were reported.
As an increasing number of residents are suffering from coughing, sneezing or tight chests amid the city's heavy recent smog, netizens have started labeling the phenomenon the "Beijing cough."
With the debate raging, the Beijing municipal government has vowed to strengthen efforts to curb air pollution.
Measures include taking 180,000 old vehicles off the road, promoting clean energy cars, and closing some 450 heavily pollutive plants, according to the work report by acting mayor Wang Anshun at Tuesday's opening of the session.
Deputies to the congress will further discuss air pollution control during the session, which lasts until next Monday and will elect a new mayor.
Beijing has witnessed persistent smog since early this month. Air quality indices were off the charts for seven days, exceeding the "maximum" level of 500 in the city. The smog was dispersed by a cold front with wind last week, but soon returned.
Andrew McCormick, an American computer game designer who has worked in Beijing for three years, has made plans to leave the city, partly because he wants his children to enjoy a better environment.
McCormick, a 35-year-old newly-wed who is planning to have a baby, said he sneezes with a tight chest every day in Beijing. The symptoms disappear when he leaves for other cities on holidays.
"I don't want my children to grow up in the polluted environment," he said, adding he did not expect the government to change the situation soon, as battling air pollution is a long-term task.
People on the Internet have mocked the smog as "the dirtiest air in history" in Beijing as well as other cities that are also shrouded by haze.
The Beijing Emergency Medical Center received 535 patients with respiratory diseases from Jan. 7 to 14, or 54 percent more than the same period of last year.
Experts believe the serious air pollution Beijing is facing is one of the costs of rapid urban development.
Beijing's population hit 20.69 million by the end of 2012, an increase of 500,000 people year on year, according to the Beijing Municipal Statistics Bureau. The number of vehicles in the city reached 5.2 million at the end of 2012, with the number of private cars still on the rise.
Wei Tianni, deputy chief with Beijing City No. 6 Hospital, said human beings exposed to polluted air for a long time may catch lung cancer.
Figures show the incidence of lung cancer in Beijing surged 56 percent from 2001 to stand at 62.68 per 100,000 members of the population in 2010.
Wei, also a deputy to the Beijing Municipal People's Congress, suggested that Beijing should learn lessons from London, where the Great Smog left thousands of people dead in 1952, and take sustainable methods to develop.
"'Beijing cough' is not a term we are proud of," said Wei. "We should reflect why decades later we still fail to learn lessons from the incident in London."