HAIKOU, Dec. 25 (Xinhua) -- The spread of suffocating smog to more Chinese cities this winter came as another warning for the country to intensify its campaign against environmental damage caused by three decades of rapid growth.
In the latest attack, the smog hit 16 out of 74 monitored cities on Tuesday, Christmas Eve. The smog readings of the cities, which measure fine particulate that is considered dangerous, exceeded 300, or about six times the level deemed safe. A dozen cities measured "beyond index" on the pollution scale.
A post on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, joked that "Christmas has to be canceled because Santa Claus fell in the snow and failed to get help on his gift-buying trip in China due to the smoggy weather." The post has been forwarded tens of thousands of times as a way to mock the hazardous haze.
Official data showed that 2013 has had the most smoggy days of any year in the last 52 years. Since the beginning of December, at least 25 regions and provinces have reported high pollution levels, particularly of PM2.5, which are tiny floating particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. PM2.5 particles are especially hazardous as they can settle in the lungs and cause illnesses such as respiratory problems.
NOWHERE TO ESCAPE
Chen Jie, who lives in Beijing, is one year away from her pension age. After a drive to her smog-blanketed hometown in east China proved as disappointing as the capital, Chen became determined to find a clean place to settle down in her retirement.
As the smog belt started to stretch from the country's northern cities to the south, Chen's search went as far as Hainan, the country's southernmost island province known for its tropical landscape.
"It totally surprised me that Haikou, the capital city, also has a smog problem," said Chen.
Haikou, a holiday resort considered by many to be a perfect place to "clean one's lungs," recorded a hazy week earlier this month, with smog readings shooting over 100.
The pollution was caused by floating pollutants from northern regions, coupled with local car emissions and adverse winter weather conditions, local authorities explained after conducting an emergency investigation.
The frequency of smog-smothered days recently in southern cities like Haikou and Fuzhou, as well as western cities like Lhasa, where clean air has been a major tourist attraction, has astonished local residents.
"I have stayed in Haikou for nearly 20 years. I only ever saw fog, never smog. Haze for so many days in a row like this is rare," said a woman surnamed Liu.
Those who can't migrate to other places have increased their indoor time with expensive air filters installed in their apartments and have worn masks as much as possible when going out on smoggy days.
In Shanghai, the country's eastern economic hub, the smog has affected children and elderly people who are vulnerable to the dirty air. Local hospitals treated 5,070 cases of respiratory problems between Dec. 2 and Dec. 5, marking a rise of 25.9 percent from last year.
"For many urban residents, the happiness brought by rising incomes is far from enough to make up for the happiness taken away by environmental pollution," said Zhang Xiaode, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance.
"If we don't deal with the pollution seriously, there will be no place to escape," Chen said.