The shroud of smoke and soot that has made Beijing an environmental basket case isn't limited to China's capital.
Of the 74 cities where Chinese authorities regularly monitor air quality, only eight met the country's standards in 2014, according to figures released by the country's Ministry of Environmental Protection. The worst cities were concentrated in the industrial region around Beijing, including the neighboring province of Heibei. The region was home to eight of the 10 most polluted cities, including the worst — the steel and automobile manufacturing hub of Baoding.
"Beijing is getting a lot of the attention, but in fact a lot of the cities surrounding Beijing actually have more serious air pollution problems," said Christopher James, head of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit that advises government officials on environmental issues. "They're just not getting as much attention, perhaps because they're not the capital."
The statistics came out barely a week after Beijing's mayor bluntly told local leaders that the capital was "not a livable city." The city's air met national pollution standards less than half the time in 2014 — 156 days out of 365, the Environment Ministry reported. The most common pollutant measure, particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers, was more than 1.6 times the national standard in Beijing, according to ministry figures.
02-05-2015 03:00; PM2.5; 8.0; 33; Good (at 24-hour exposure at this level)
— BeijingAir (@BeijingAir)February 4, 2015
But as bad as that is, it's an improvement over 2013, when three cities met national standards, according to the ministry. Faced with concerns about public health and the complaints of international business, rapidly developing China has launched an unprecedented effort to clean up its act in the past three years.
"The public attention in China today to air quality is unbelievable," James told VICE News. Patrons in Beijing restaurants check particulate readings and air-quality numbers like people check their golf scores and football scores."
While China has complained about the US Embassy publishing air-quality data, it has had to establish its own network of monitors and make those readings public. "That has been a game changer, and I don't see that going away," James said.
Chinese authorities have sought to crack down on polluting businesses, stepping up fines for violations and closing down some of the worst. Beijing is moving to limit the growth of its population of 21 million-plus, get old cars off the roads, and close down hundreds of polluting factories.
But the capital and its surrounding region have a natural handicap: Weather and topography. It's surrounded by mountains, "very much like Los Angeles," and with "very stagnant" weather patterns, said James. Meanwhile, smoke from surrounding industrial plants — many of which run on coal — mixes with emissions from auto tailpipes and oil refineries. "That produces these very thick, toxic clouds that persist for many days, until you get some sort of cleansing weather system that comes in from Mongolia," James told VICE News.
And the refinery emissions themselves are something of a puzzle to Western researchers, he said: "Whether it's the result of China not having the controls on the refineries that we have in the US or whether it's the nature of the fuel, this is a problem that's still being investigated," he added.
A new study by Peking University and the environmental group Greenpeace estimates that at least 250,000 people in Chinese cities risk a premature death from breathing polluted air -— a figure comparable to smoking. Meeting national air-quality standards could cut that death rate by more than half, the study concluded.
Most of the cities with the best air quality readings were on or near China's eastern coastline: Haikou, on the island of Hainan, topped the ministry's list, while Lhasa — the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region — was another bright spot.
James said China's ruling Communist Party has attempted to enforce its environmental crackdown by leaning on local officials who can't meet their goals, threatening them with transfers to a provincial backwater or losing development funds for their projects.
"Just like the in the United States, every mayor and elected official likes to showcase getting money from the federal government and building things and getting jobs," he said. "That's actually a very powerful incentive that's in place now to compel mayors and high-level officials to met environmental targets."
Beijing missed its air-pollution reduction goals last year, Mayor Wang Anshun acknowledged in January. But there's only so much a mayor can do.
"China needs to have a focus that includes all industrial sectors and multiple pollutants at the same time," James told VICE News. While it's spending hundreds of billions to clean up its environment, "It's going to take 15 to 20 years, maybe more, to obtain what the Chinese consider blue skies."
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl