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We would also like to forecast the future of China, but just now it's hard to see where that country is heading. In fact, in Beijing, it's hard to see very far at all. NPR's Louisa Lim reports on catastrophic air pollution.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Here in Beijing, they're calling it the airpocalypse. These past few days, the entire city has been blanketed in thick gray smog. It smells of coal, it makes your eyes sting and your throat feel scratchy. And at the very worst, sometimes you can hardly see to the other side of the road. If my voice sounds muffled, it's because I'm wearing a Darth Vader-style facemask to filter the air - an extreme measure because this is an extreme public health emergency.

ZHOU RONG: In the last three days, the air pollution is beyond index. It's the worst since we've had readings, starting from last year.

LIM: That's Zhou Rong from the environmental group Greenpeace. At its worst, Beijing's recent pollution has been 25 times higher than the level considered safe in the U.S. She explains why it's so bad.

ZHOU: In the winter we have to burn more coal to get heating. And another reason is it's because the weather pattern make the whole atmosphere very, very stable and all air pollution are going down and accumulate down to the ground. So we are getting higher and higher air pollution.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: For once, domestic bulletins are headlining the smog. And since the beginning of this year, hourly pollution readings are being released for more than 70 cities. One factor driving this is the U.S. embassy's own pollution monitor here, which in the past showed discrepancies between Chinese and U.S. pollution figures. That's led to more transparency, a significant development according to Alex Wang, an expert on Chinese environmental law at UC-Berkeley.

ALEX WANG: In theory with the greater transparency that's harder to do, sort of the falsification or cheating the data. What'll be really interesting to see going forward is now that they've become more transparent - they're releasing hourly data and so forth - does it actually force the regulators to actually sort of take regulatory action?

LIM: Beijing is taking emergency action, shutting some building sites and factories and taking almost a third of official cars off the road. It's also vowing to cut air pollution by 15 percent over the next three years. But the surrounding provinces are actually stepping up coal consumption, dooming such pledges, according to Greenpeace's Zhou.

ZHOU: It's not going to work if only Beijing City do the mitigation work alone. If the surrounding area don't do the same work, Beijing will never get better air quality.

LIM: I'm now in Beijing's main children's hospital and it's packed to overflowing. Here the emergency room is lined with children hooked up to drips, and upstairs the corridors are filled with patients waiting to see doctors. In the last few days this hospital has seen 9,000 patients per day - almost a third of them with respiratory diseases. The parents here are sure the pollution is to blame.

LOUISE HUANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Of course it's connected to the pollution, says Louise Huang. She's here with her 18-month-old son. He started getting sick the first day of the smog, even though she hasn't dared open the windows or go outside. This must get better, she tells me. I can't imagine how we'd live if it got worse.

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LIM: And there are fears for the future. As this song puts it, I live in this smog. I don't want to die in this smog. China's quite literally choking on its own development. But this environmental crisis could drag down economic growth. And given growing public dissatisfaction, it could yet become a political problem for China's new leaders. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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