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Commuters in smog-filled Xingtai city, in China's Hebei province. Few residents wear face masks. The cloth ones shown here lack the filters necessary to reduce the risk of lung cancer, heart disease and other health problems associated with pollution. / Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY

XINGTAI, China - Power plant worker Liu Shui likes to bike around his hometown province Hebei in north China pursuing his photography hobby.

But as Liu tried to photograph ducks on a park lake in this grim city of steel mills and cement plants, the opposite shore was hidden in a thick haze of air pollution so intense it would likely prompt an emergency response in the United States.

"I want to shoot blue skies, but now there are more and more smoggy days," Liu, 43, said.

Home to 7 million people, Xingtai is a prime example of China's nationwide challenge to balance its intense desire for unceasing conomic growth to raise incomes with the growing demand from citizens to protect the public health.

The problem has gotten so bad that Premier Li Keqiang, at the opening of the annual meeting of the National People's Congress last week, said that dirty air is too big of a calamity to ignore.

"We will resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty," Li told the delegates of a body that largely exists to approve everything China's unelected Communist Party leadership decides.

In a country infamous for toxic air, Hebei province has seven of the 10 cities with the worst air quality in China, per daily rankings Beijing started releasing last spring. Here in Xingtai, which consistently tops that chart and where factories using few modern pollution controls pour clouds of dust-filled emissions into the air, only 38 days in 2013 met national standards for air quality.

The smog here sometimes drifts to Beijing, blanketing the capital in a sickening haze that, depending on winds, can float into neighboring countries or even the United States.

But heavy industrial centers are under pressure from the party to maintain production, and power plants and factories often find ways to hide their pollution from environmentalists and inspectors trying to access emission records and monitor anti-pollution controls.

China likes to trumpet to international organizations that it has some of the toughest environmental laws anywhere. That may be true, say environmentalists, but the laws are often disregarded by factories and government functionaries alike.

"We have the money and the technology to deal with this problem," yet enforcement remains weak, said Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, who often spars with China's bureaucracy to get it to enforce laws.

FEW FACE MASKS, NO FIREWORKS

In China's wealthiest cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, air pollution forms an inescapable hot topic. Face masks to reduce the risk of lung cancer, heart disease and other health problems associated with smog are increasingly common.

In Xingtai, few residents wear face masks or adapt their routine, despite smog that regularly registers over 20 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

"I know we're the worst in China," said housewife Hao Renfei with a laugh. She was taking her 2-year-old niece for a walk last week during severe smog, when Chinese authorities advise people to stay inside, especially the young and elderly, and to wear masks when outside.

"But no one in my family has gotten sick from smog. We used to call it fog," said Hao, 46. "We've never thought of leaving. It's still a great city."

Every morning, like millions of other smartphone users across China, She Liqi checks the air quality level. Central to China's smog-expanded vocabulary is the reading for PM2.5, for tiny Particulate Matter, discharged from power plants and other polluters, which can easily enter the lungs.

Most U.S. cities record PM2.5 density of under 20 micrograms per cubic meter. Xingtai's often exceeds 500 - experienced in the U.S. only during forest fires.

"Even after checking for a year, I am still shocked, but I feel helpless, and upset," said She, 23, a solar parts worker whose worries have not translated into mask-wearing.

Boasting a 3,500-year history, Xingtai was best known in China for 12th century astronomer Guo Shoujing. "Now we're famous for our air, and often you can't see stars," She said.

The Taihang Mountains in neighboring Shanxi province have also disappeared from sight in the past decade, complained taxi driver Yang Zongying, 55, who blames heavy industry. Chinese New Year last month was the quietest ever, but Yang said he welcomed a new ban on fireworks to reduce smoke emissions, and occasional restrictions on vehicle use.

"The smog can be so thick I sometimes just stay at home as it's too dangerous to drive," said Yang.

Only regional cooperation between several provinces can reduce the smog that angers capital residents and has cut international tourist arrivals, say environmentalists. Such coordination requires directives from China's top party leaders and real enforcement at the local level.

But there are signs of progress.

The state-owned Hengshui power plant in Hebei where Liu controls production output has reduced two major pollutants - sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides - below national minimum standards last year, he said.

"Measures to protect the environment weren't so strict in the past, but the government cracks down harder now," said Liu. "Our data is monitored 24 hours a day."

Hebei promises to slash annual steel and cement production capacity by 60 million tons by 2017, cut annual coal consumption by 40 million tons from 2012 levels, and sack officials who allow steel or cement production to exceed quotas, reported state news agency Xinhua.

Instead of prioritizing economic growth, officials nationwide increasingly will be judged on pollution reduction, said Xinhua. By 2017, Xingtai city aims to cut PM2.5 levels by 30%, which requires curbing coal consumption by over 2 million tons, it said.

But Xingtai's mayor did not mention anything about PM2.5 reductions in his annual work report recently.

"These plans touch some issues which used to be beyond consideration, but implementation will be very difficult," warned Ma of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Ma said for anything to really be done, the National People's Congress, government officials and industry leaders must not just collaborate but supervise each other and create a system to put everything under public supervision.

"If more information can be spread and shared with the public that will help generate confidence and get people more involved," said Ma, who spends much of his time trying to obtain pollution records that factories are by law supposed to maintain and make public.

Though there is increasing anger over pollution, some of which has prompted protesters to block proposed factories, many Chinese have reacted by buying face masks rather than demanding change from the government.

Ma blamed the Communist Party's restrictions on civil society aimed at discouraging organized actions that could challenge the authority of the government.

"In the long run, China needs to give more space for communities and non-governmental organizations to grow," he said. "Now they're still so weak they can't play a role to mobilize people."

A CLEANER WAY FORWARD

In Xingtai, Yang Xinmin used to worry that shutting down factories that pollute would be worse than keeping them open because of what it would do to the jobs

But no longer.

Xingtai authorities closed several-hundred wood board plants in recent months for burning coal in heavily polluting small boilers without modern pollution controls employed routinely in the West.

"If all the board factories are shut, many people will be unemployed - but I have noticed air quality is worse than 10 years ago," said Yang, 28, who three months earlier had to send 60 workers home from the plant he founded a decade ago because of pollution.

Natural gas reached Yang's village outside Xingtai last month, so he's hopeful of re-opening.

"I don't want to be the source of air pollution that harms my 5-year-old daughter's health, and other people's kids. Of course I like blue skies," he said.

"Being the worst in China is a shameful thing," added Yang, who hopes that officials will also punish major polluters in heavy industry.

Among the biggest here is Delong Iron and Steel Company, one of over 100 heavy industry plants - and many thousands of smaller plants - that ring Xingtai city. Delong was fined $16,000 in both December and January for excess emissions, which is small compared to its annual revenue of $1.5 billion.

At his traditional medicine clinic close to Delong's smokestacks, Dr. Liu Jianping treats an increasing number of residents with ailments that may be smog-related, he said.

"Anyone with money has already left due to the pollution," said Liu. "I want to cure the people's diseases, so I can't move away."

Meng Caiping, an insurance saleswoman, came to Liu's clinic complaining of chest discomfort she said is from the smog. She is hooked up to an intravenous drip of antibiotics, a popular treatment in China used often here for minor ailments that may not require it.

"I don't see enough sunshine and nor do our crops," said Meng, 50, of the family maize plots she said deliver shrinking harvests.

Chinese scientists have warned that relentless smog may harm China's food supply, but Meng revealed one reason why the problem may be hard to stop.

At home, Meng, as well as her neighbors, burns raw coal for heat and cooking rather than the less-polluting molded briquettes the environment ministry urges be used.

"I know it's bad, but it's cheap," she said.

She also doubted the necessary reforms to stop pollution will happen.

"It's too tough to solve the problem fundamentally, as the government relies on these factories," she said.

Air purifiers, which are expensive, sell well in richer cities, but sales remain poor in Xingtai, said Jiang Jinbo, chief salesman at the Guomei electronics goods mall.

"As air pollution gets worse, or people grow more aware of the harm of bad air, our sales may increase. It's worth the money they pay," he said.

Green houseplants, said here to cut smog's ill-effects, fill the entrance to several offices at the Xingtai Environmental Protection Bureau, where few staff wear masks. Air purifiers cost too much, explained Sheng Hailong, deputy head of the atmospheric pollution section.

"We are doing a lot to reduce Xingtai's smog, but this is a development question and will simply take time, like it did in the USA," he said.

Yang Fuqiang, a Beijing-based senior adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental group, said Beijing could achieve the WHO guidelines for air pollution by as early as 2025.

"It's painful for the local government and people to slow down GDP growth, but this time the actions are more serious than before," he said. "The Hebei provincial government understands they need a new, more sustainable way."

At Xingtai University, geography student Zhao Yulin said young people must do more about the smog instead of merely joking that "we are the best in the worst category."

But Zhao, 22, spied at least one silver lining in the cloud: a lasting career.

"I should have a job in the future," she said with a smile. "I hope I can contribute to solving our pollution problem."

Contributing: Sunny Yang



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Dangerous smog battles the economy in China

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