How long can China hold its breath?

Ever-increasing public pressure from a fed-up citizenry has seen pollution skyrocket to the top of the government’s list of priorities.

China’s ‘war on pollution’ is facing an uphill battle despite the government’s much–vaunted efforts. Authorities launched their first salvo as soon as the new year began. A new, tougher environmental protection law was announced almost as the first order of business. Steel production will be slashed and coal consumption caps are on their way too.

But it only took a couple of weeks into 2015 for Beijing’s municipal environment authority to put out its first smog warning for the year. Last week, the Air Quality Index reading from the U.S. embassy went as high as 545 -- over 20 times the World Health Organisation’s level of ‘unhealthy’.

The problem doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. 171 out 190 cities exceeded China’s own limit on annual emission of particulars (PM2.5) in 2014, according to Greenpeace. PM2.5 particulate matter is the most dangerous because its small particles can penetrate deep into the lungs.

According to statistics from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, cities in China’s Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region suffer over 100 haze days every year, with PM2.5 concentration two to four times above the World Health Organization guidelines. In 2010 in Beijing alone, PM2.5 pollution could be attributed to 2,349 deaths.

That such data is now publically available is a sign of enormous progress from only a few years ago. Faced with a government with its head in the sand over the issue, citizens took matters into their own hands in 2012 and purchased their own air quality monitors and posted the readings online.

The ever-increasing public pressure from a fed-up citizenry has seen the issue sky-rocket to the top of the government’s list of priorities. Even Premier Li Keqiang is a convert. When asked about the issue, he freely admits to checking the AQI on his smartphone every day.

But the problem is not going away any time soon and in the meantime, awareness is becoming more and more widespread. After prominent citizens like real-estate mogul Pan Shiyi started blasting AQI readings out to his now 17-million plus Weibo followers every morning, the train was well and truly set in motion.

In November last year, internationally renowned director Jia Zhangke joined up with Pan to make a promotional video about the smog issue and SOHO’s attempts to make buildings that keep the bad air out and the water clean.

Now, Jia is continuing his campaign with the environmental activists at Greenpeace. A short-film by Jia, ‘Smog Journey’, was released onto Chinese social media today. The hard-hitting film features babies breathing through respirators in hospitals and smog-covered cityscapes filled with crowds of people wearing the now ubiquitous facemasks.

The film traces the lives of two families in Hebei Province and Beijing – one a mining family and the other a fashion designer in the capital. Coal consumption in Hebei province, which borders Beijing, reached 313 million tons in 2012, and is a major contributor to smog: of the 10 cities with the worst PM2.5 air pollution, seven of them were in Hebei.

The creator of the 2006 feature Still Life, which won the coveted Golden Lion at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival, is not exactly a household name in China. While his films have garnered plaudits on the world stage, they are often banned from distribution domestically. Nonetheless, Jia boasts over 1.5 million followers on Weibo.

“I wanted to make a film that enlightens people, not frightens them. The issue of smog is something that all the citizens of the country need to face, understand, and solve in the upcoming few years,” Jia said in an interview with Greenpeace.

The film points to positive signs of progress as a schoolchild marks the morning’s PM2.5 reading on a blackboard and it ends with an ominous call to action — “Clean air doesn’t come to those who wait”. It seems Jia might not want to frighten his fellow citizens, but the people who lead them.

"One thing that fascinated and shocked me the most was the fact that even on smoggy days, people still lived their lives as usual," says Jia.

"When the Air Quality Index hit 200 or 300, and the air turned opaque or grey, I still saw people dancing their square dances, young people still hanging out. Everyone was doing what they would normally be doing."

While government has being making the right sounds, China’s new leaders have overseen a tightening of restrictions social media and other avenues civil society have used to push the issue this far.

In September 2013, Pan Shiyi himself appeared on state-run TV to warned of the dangers of “casual” online posts and arguing that users should be “more disciplined” and have a sense of “social responsibility”.

The window for ordinary citizens to have a say on how the problem is dealt with may already be closing. On his own Weibo account, Jia Zhangke has taken an enigmatic approach. He’s staying off the platform for a while, he posted yesterday, while he focuses on opening up a noodle shop in his hometown in Shanxi.

Curiously, the noodle shop hasn’t been found, despite the best efforts of his fans. They suspect he’s working on a new film.