Buildings shrouded in smog in Hebei province, China, on Jan. 5, 2017. (EPA/HOW HWEE YOUNG)

 

Even in an authoritarian one-party state, the government listens to public opinion — especially when the middle class gets angry.

And make no mistake, many middle-class Beijingers are mad. For much of the last three weeks, a thick pall of smog has settled over the capital — and much of China — in one of the most sustained periods of air pollution in the capital’s history.

The government was supposed to be winning a war on air pollution, but this was proof that too little was really happening. And when children start falling sick, the ire rose.

A campaign by angry, largely middle-class parents about the lack of an air filtration system in Beijing’s schools spread like wildfire across social media this week, especially on a messaging app called WeChat.

In just over 24 hours, the city government reacted — by promising to equip Beijing’s schools with air cleaning systems.

“Yesterday in our WeChat group, I saw parents discussing how many children were coughing and sick,” wrote a parent of a primary schoolchild in the petition. “Parents are very worried, and so am I.”

Launched Wednesday, the petition asking the government to install an air filtration system in schools gathered nearly half a million views and more than 2,700 comments in around 24 hours.

Over the New Year weekend, a wave of smog rolled into China's capital city of Beijing. Residents here are calling it "airpocalypse," as the skies darken and air quality is rated at hazardous levels. Even digital pollution meters in homes rated the indoor air-quality as poor. (Simon Denyer,Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

In another message viewed or shared tens of thousands of times, parents complained that closing schools in periods of heavy smog — as the government now mandates — is not a solution. In China’s National Museum, the air is filtered effectively and pollution eliminated, the message pointed out.

“Antiques are important but they represent our past,” the message said. “Our children are more important, because they are the future of our country.”

Beijing’s education authority announced late Thursday that air purifying systems would be installed in pilot kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, in a program subsidized by the municipal government.

Echoing the words of the parents’ complaints, state media cited the municipal education authority as saying that children are the future of families and the nation, and that their health is of concern not only to their parents but also to the authorities.

In December 2015, the Beijing government refused to budge after a similar campaign during another bout of heavy pollution — citing the lack of adequate electric circuitry in schools to install an air-scrubbing system, and the likelihood that open doors would render it ineffective anyway.

But this week's announcement did not satisfy many people, especially those living outside the capital.

“Beijing's children are flowers, other cities' children are grass,” one user commented.

“Children from Hebei, are they not children of the Motherland?” asked another, citing the province surrounding Beijing which is home to much heavy industry and many of the world’s most smog-bound cities.

[A young man died in police custody, and middle-class Chinese are outraged]

Others complained that installing air purifiers would not solve the underlying problem, while others suspected that the filters would probably be installed only in schools where officials send their children.

One commentator said many top officials were sending their children abroad to study anyway. “Bring all government officials' children back to China,” he wrote.

Lauri Myllyvirta, an air pollution specialist with Greenpeace East Asia, said the concentration of small PM2.5 particles in the air had stayed above a critical level — 200 micrograms per cubic meter — for eight days in a row, marking the first eight-day streak in at least 15 years. PM2.5 particles are particularly dangerous because they are small enough to enter the lungs and then the bloodstream.

Middle-class anger was already simmering after the death in police custody of a 29-year-old urban professional, Lei Yang, and the authorities’ subsequent decision not to prosecute the police officers involved.

On that occasion, the government backed the police and rode out the public backlash. This time around, it acted, and fast.

Jin Xin and Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.