Beijing (AFP) - Pollution-weary residents of smog-hit Beijing turned to black humour to help cope with gruelling conditions Tuesday as a large swathe of China was covered by a thick blanket of haze for a sixth consecutive day.
Meanwhile President Xi Jinping was pictured taking a walk on a Beijing street, in the latest instance of Chinese authorities seeking to portray themselves as close to ordinary citizens.
Small airborne particles, which easily penetrate the lungs and are known as PM 2.5, have been linked to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, and the problem has emerged as a major source of discontent with China's government.
The noxious haze -- a common phenomenon in winter in many parts of northern China -- was once again a top topic on China's Internet message boards.
Images of statues of Chinese intellectuals Li Dazhao, Cai Yuanpei and Chen Daisun, along with Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, wearing anti-pollution facemasks were among the most shared on Tuesday.
"This is a silent protest!", said one netizen on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, under a picture of the statues at Peking University.
Levels of PM 2.5 have repeatedly reached more than 400 micrograms per cubic metre in recent days, according to a count by the US embassy in Beijing.
This figure is more than 16 times the World Health Organization's (WHO) safety guideline of 25 micrograms.
Official Chinese monitoring statistics said PM 2.5 levels reached 576 micrograms per cubic metre on Tuesday in Tangshan, in the neighbouring province of Hebei.
The haze is expected to last until Thursday and Bernhard Schwartlander, WHO Representative in China described it as a "crisis" at a press conference Tuesday.
President Xi Jinping was pictured Tuesday walking outdoors -- without a facemask -- in Nanluoguxiang, a popular restaurant district just south of Beijing's ancient Drum Tower.
But his stroll did not appear to be spontaneous, as television cameras were also in evidence in the pictures posted on Weibo.
They came after Xi caused an Internet stir in December when he queued and bought his own steamed buns at a Beijing restaurant, a move apparently aimed at promoting the image of him as a man of the people.
China shuts polluting factories and aims to limit the amount of cars to help combat pollution, but many analysts point to the use of coal for energy as the main source of the country's smog.
Environmental issues, including smog, will be a "major focus" at next month's meetings of the National People's Congress, China's rubber stamp parliament, and a linked discussion body, the China Daily said.
A proposal to reduce the number of households burning coal will be submitted, it said, quoting an expert saying it would "help solve our smog problem".