Security guards walk along the promenade on the Bund against the skyline of the Lujiazui Financial District in heavy smog in Pudong, Shanghai, China, on Dec. 8, 2013. Photograph by Imaginechina via AP Images
Security guards walk along the promenade on the Bund against the skyline of the Lujiazui Financial District in heavy smog in Pudong, Shanghai, China, on Dec. 8, 2013. Photograph by Imaginechina via AP Images

On Thursday, as the smog that has choked Shanghai for much of the last week reached hazardous levels, the city’s environmental authority took decisive action to address the frequent air-quality alerts: It adjusted standards downward to ensure that there won’t be so many.

It was a cynical move, surely made to protect the bureau’s image in the face of unrelenting pollution that only seems to grow worse, despite government promises to address it. At this advanced stage in China’s development, nobody in the country (or elsewhere) -- not even the loyal state news media -- seems to believe that the problem is solvable, at least not any time soon. Even worse, nobody -- not the state and certainly not the growing number of middle-class consumers (and car buyers) -- seems ready to take responsibility for the mess.

So China’s microbloggers blame the government. And the government acknowledges the problem (“Study shows air pollution more deadly than thought,” was a recent Xinhua headline, recognizing a European study about air-pollution mortality), and blames everyone. “We must be clear on one point,” wrote the nationalist, state-owned Global Times newspaper on Monday. “Pollution control is not the sole responsibility of government, but the mutual project of our collective society.”

If you can’t fix it, you might as well try to avoid responsibility for it, the thinking seems to go. It therefore comes as no surprise that Shanghai’s Environmental Protection Bureau decided to lower the benchmark for alerting the public about pollution risks. It will now issue alerts only when the concentration of the most dangerous particulates in the city’s air, known as PM2.5 (particulates smaller than 2.5 micometers in diameter) reach 115 micrograms per cubic meter. The previous standard was 75 micrograms per cubic meter. (The World Health Organization recommends not exceeding 25 micrograms per cubic meter in a 24-hour period.)

The state-owned English-language China Daily explained the decision in tone that almost obscured the absurdity of the maneuver: “The bureau said it believes the original standard is too strict, given that haze is common in the Yangtze River Delta region in winter.”

Sadly, the pollution in Shanghai has approached such catastrophic levels in recent days that the impact of such a move is destined to be trivial. The day after the new guidelines were issued, the PM2.5 concentration in Shanghai reached 582 micrograms per cubic meter (a level that corresponds to a “hazardous” rating according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index standards).

In truth, nobody in Shanghai needs the government to tell him something is amiss when smoky haze reduces visibility to a few hundred feet. But for those who insist on relying upon Shanghai’s government to know which way the pollution blows, there’s hope. According to China Daily, the city will probably return to the previous standards as soon as the data is more flattering to authorities: “The city likely will revert to the original standard to lift severe-pollution warnings in summer, when air quality is better, experts said. The air quality on more than 90 percent of the days in July and August this year was regarded as good, data from the Shanghai Environmental Monitoring Center showed.”

In fairness, Shanghai has recently taken other, more tangible measures to deal with its smog. In October, it announced that it was implementing a program to bring 2017 air pollution to a level 20 percent below where it was in 2012. Last Friday, the city announced it was carrying out emergency measures and halting or limiting the pollution allowed by what it termed “key industrial enterprises,” suspending outdoor construction and road work (activities that generate significant dust), as well as the use of 30 percent of the publicly-owned cars and trucks in the city.

Whether those measures were successfully executed is difficult to say; their ineffectiveness, however, is without doubt, with dangerous pollution readings persisting into this week. Over the weekend, Chinese media was blanketed by smog stories, with many state outlets predicting that a cold front -- not government action -- would be the means of clearing the air.

On Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblogging service, a few people took note of this impotent response. Meng Fei, a popular television host in Nanjing (currently home to some of the worst pollution), took aim at the national government and its flagship CCTV television network on Saturday: “All afternoon I watched CCTV’s reports and felt that no leaders, from the top to the local level, attached importance to the pollution disaster. Thank you, CCTV anchor, for praying for cold air on behalf of the whole nation.”

Such prayers appear to have been answered. By 6 p.m. Tuesday evening, Shanghai’s PM2.5 levels were about three times the WHO's recommended levels (but rising), and the city was breathing easier. But that’s an improvement only by comparison. Elsewhere in the world, such levels would be viewed as unacceptably high. In China, they’re enough to get people remove their masks and inadvertently highlight what is perhaps the sorriest consequence of China’s pollution crisis: A nation that treats blue skies like all-too-rare rainbows.

Tangjia Chen cogently made such a point in the Friday edition of the state-owned Xinmin Evening News. He noted that Beijing’s air was pristine over the last week, and this was cause for much for celebration.“On social networks like Weibo and Wechat, Beijingers now show photos of blue skies and white clouds as if they’re on vacation.” This show-off behavior left a bad taste, he concedes, before concluding with a final sentence that ought to serve as a rallying cry in China: “I really hope that someday people will resume reacting to blue skies and white clouds in a ‘normal’ manner.”

That's a hope that probably won’t be fulfilled in this decade or even the next. The best that can be hoped for at this point is that Shanghai, and other Chinese cities, will start raising air-quality standards, rather than lowering them in the face of catastrophe.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net