BEIJING – A cold front that swept choking smog from northern China couldn’t have come sooner for Beijing’s mayor.
After days of hazardous pollution forced people to wear masks and huddle indoors, residents of China’s capital turned their attention to the mayor, Wang Anshun, and his bold vow last year to clear the air. If pollution wasn’t brought under control by 2017, Wang said at the time, he would cut off his own head and present it to the country’s leadership.
“Hi Mayor, I’m here, waiting for your head,” a person using the Internet handle “I Love Rao Zizhao” wrote Tuesday on a discussion board on the Weibo social network, with dozens of others reposting the comment. Earlier, the official count of PM2.5 — the particles that cause the greatest risk to human health — had exceeded 500 micrograms per cubic meter, more than 20 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit.
The smog surged in northern China on Monday during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Paris, where he vowed to work with U.S. counterpart Barack Obama and other world leaders to stem carbon emissions and fight climate change. The capital raised its pollution alert to orange — the second-highest level — for the first time in 13 months on Sunday, the same day that the Chinese government said it had met pollution-reduction targets for the year.
Late Tuesday, winds began to flush the smog from the region and, by Wednesday morning, PM2.5 levels in Beijing had plunged to single digits. But the skies couldn’t clear before people began mocking local officials who had so frequently vowed to control the pollution.
“The mayor has vowed on his own head to control the smog, but we still have to rely on the wind to control it,” Sichuan People’s Radio wrote on its official Weibo account. “What do you think?”
While China’s Internet is tightly controlled and politically sensitive posts are often deleted, the censors do tolerate some criticism of local officials and national issues. In March, an online documentary discussing the government’s failures to fight industrial pollution attracted more than 200 million views before disappearing from the Chinese Web.
Wang made his antipollution vow during a local legislative meeting in January 2014, saying the city would invest 76 billion Chinese yuan ($11.9 billion) on air quality, including replacing coal- fired heating systems in urban areas with natural gas ones. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment on Wednesday.
The controversy was noticed by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, which published on its website an article entitled, “What We Need is Clean Air, Not the Head of Beijing Mayor.” The bylined piece acknowledged the challenge of fighting air pollution and said efforts to shut industry and clear the skies during events like Xi’s military parade in September and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum last year showed the government’s resolve.
“What we need most is the actions for solving the problem, rather than just warnings that predict the imminent problem,” the article said. “It is the determination and active actions that will lead to the most-wanted clean air, not the promised ‘head.’ ”
Another Weibo user named Little Li From the Village questioned whether Wang would fare so well if he worked for China’s neighbor, North Korea. “I bet his head would already be on the table in front of Kim Jong Un, if he was a North Korean official,” it said.