Rising public concerns over hazardous pollution triggered by intense smog that blanketed Chinese cities for much of the past week has prompted the government to pledge fresh emission curbs and to suspend work in 58 factories.

The national environmental watchdog announced on Tuesday it would also put in place measures to limit vehicle emissions, after heavy smog over the weekend across many Chinese cities prompted a public outcry and unusual criticism of China’s growth policies even by State media outlets.

The Chinese capital has been shrouded under a cloud of smog since Saturday, when pollution readings went off the charts. The readings for PM 2.5 particles – airborne particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less which can cause health problems when inhaled – soared to a record 993 micrograms per cubic meter on Saturday night.

According to the World Health Organisation, a reading above 100 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, while the air quality scale index itself has a maximum reading of 500. By Tuesday morning, the smog in the capital had lifted a little, with air readings falling to less than 200.

The weekend’s readings have, however, triggered renewed public concerns here about health hazards on account of rising pollution. The government on Monday said it had ordered 58 factories with high emissions and some construction sites to suspend work.

Li Hong, deputy director of Beijing’s Economy and Information Technology Commission, said at a press conference arranged hastily to assuage public fears that the move would reduce 30 per cent of the emissions that had polluted the skies above the capital. And, in nearby Shijiazhuang in Hebei province, more than 700 construction sites were made to stop work, he said.

The Beijing government on Monday also put out advisories to primary schools and kindergartens to stop physical education classes, and ordered 30 per cent of government vehicles to stay off the roads.

The moves underscore the government’s fears about the rising public anger over the deteriorating quality, in recent years, of the air above China’s cities on account of rapid economic development.

“I do believe that the recent event will make the government take very serious actions to control this problem,” John Cai, the Director of the Centre for Healthcare Management and Policy at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and a leading export on China's health policy, told The Hindu in an interview on Tuesday.

Dr. Cai said studies have found that cancer mortality rates were on the rise in China. “And within this, lung cancer is the number one major cancer, which has caused one-third of cancer deaths in the city and one-quarter of deaths in rural areas,” he said.

“Lung problems are related to air pollution. The fourth highest mortality rate is respiratory disease, so to a big extent this is related to air quality. And people now are concerned about the impact on their health”. Following the recent problems, he added, “a lot of hospitals were congested with lung-related respiratory problems”.

According to the Environmental Performance Index at Yale University, China ranks 116th overall, and 128th when it comes to air pollution.

India, however, fares even worse, ranking 125th overall and 132nd on air quality.

For the growing Chinese middle class, awareness of public health is on the rise, experts say, with decreasing tolerance for the air and water pollution that has been an offshoot of China’s rapid economic growth.

Protests against pollution are on the rise, evident in recent mass gatherings against polluting factories in Dalian and Guangdong that drew educated middle-class Chinese and students.

The Chinese government has been careful to underscore that it was mindful of the public’s concerns and serious about tackling the issue, which was given prominent coverage in State media outlets - a marked contrast from a few years ago when pollution problems were rarely reported on.

The official Xinhua news agency went as far as saying “in jeopardy are the efforts of the Communist Party of China and government authorities to advance ecological progress and their new promise to build a ‘beautiful China’. “A country with a brown sky and hazardous air is obviously not beautiful,” the commentary said.

Even the Communist Party-run Global Times, which rarely criticises the government, called for more transparency. “It is the most difficult challenge in China, because both development and clean environment are strong demands of the Chinese people,” the newspaper said in an editorial. “However, under China's current technical conditions, these two needs are pitted against each other.”

“In future, the government should publish truthful environmental data to the public. Let society participate in the process of solving the problem,” the newspaper said. “The choice between development and environment protection," the newspaper added, "should be made by genuinely democratic methods.”