BEIJING The Chinese government's failure to take emergency steps over the weekend to rein in pollution was "indefensible," state media said on Monday, in a rare show of defiance after several days of thick smog once again blanketed the capital, Beijing.
The criticism will be a concern for the stability-obsessed government, which is keen to be seen as tough on pollution as affluent city dwellers weary of a growth-at-all-costs economic model that has tainted much of China's air, water and soil.
"Their inaction in the face of the heaviest air pollution in a month flies in the face of their own promises and their own credibility," the official English-language China Daily said in an editorial.
Similar comments posted by China's state broadcaster CCTV and official mouthpiece the People's Daily on their Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblogs over the weekend were later deleted.
The city's most recent round of pollution started on Friday, with the traditional lantern festival holiday when fireworks are set off, sending air quality indicators rocketing to 522, according to the city's official microblog account.
Levels remained above 300, a degree considered hazardous, for most of the weekend, before dropping off on Monday.
The latest round of pollution comes within days of an official report concluding that severe pollution in Beijing had rendered the city "barely suitable" for living.
The Beijing government introduced a tiered emergency response system to fight high levels of smog in October 2013. The severest level mandates school closures and the removal of government vehicles from the road if the city suffers more than three consecutive days of heavy pollution.
Despite several periods of thick smog since the system was adopted, the strongest measures the plan calls for have never been taken, the official news agency, Xinhua said on Sunday.
A representative of the city's Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau told the Beijing Times it had failed to reclassify the pollution as it worsened over the weekend, and it would work to improve monitoring.
The Bureau failed to respond immediately to telephone or faxed requests from Reuters for information.
Authorities have issued innumerable orders and policies to try and clean up China's environment, investing in projects to fight pollution and empowering courts to order the death penalty in serious cases.
But enforcement of rules has been patchy at the local level, where authorities often rely on taxes paid by polluting industries.
(Reporting by Natalie Thomas; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)