Beijing: China's President Xi Jinping paid a rare visit to one of Beijing's smog-hit streets on Tuesday, drawing praise from Internet users for his latest apparent attempt to portray himself as close to ordinary citizens.
"Breathing the same air, sharing the same fate," said a widely shared online headline, as a large swathe of China was covered by a dangerous blanket of haze for a sixth consecutive day.
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.
A shaky video and pictures emerged of Xi walking outdoors -- without a facemask -- in Nanluoguxiang, a popular shopping and cafe district just south of Beijing's ancient Drum Tower.
The stroll appeared to have been planned in advance, as television cameras were also in evidence in the pictures posted on Sina Weibo, a Chinese social networking service similar to Twitter.
Xi caused a similar 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.
The trips are unusual as Chinese leaders have tended to maintain a remote image, with information about them tightly controlled by authorities, and the public given almost no information about their personal lives.
"Come to my house and take a look please Xi," asked one Sina Weibo user. "Why isn't he wearing a face mask?" asked another. "Isn't it bad for his health?" - 'Crisis' point? -
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, more than 16 times the World Health Organization's (WHO) safety guideline of 25 micrograms.
Xi's outing came as local media reported that a Chinese man had made the country's first ever attempt to sue the government over pollution.
Li Guixin, of Shijiazhuang -- a city near Beijing which is frequently hit by heavy smog -- filed a case with a local court seeking 10,000 yuan ($1,600) in damages from the city's Environmental Protection Bureau, the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily newspaper said.
Li is reportedly seeking compensation on the grounds that he was forced to spend money on an air purifier and face masks in order to cope with the pollution. It was not clear if the court would accept the case.
The noxious haze -- which in recent years has become a regular sight in many parts of northern China -- was once again a top topic on China's Internet message boards. Images showing 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 user on Weibo, under a picture of the statues at Peking University, which were posted by a student who carried out the stunt.
Official Chinese monitoring statistics said PM 2.5 levels reached 576 micrograms per cubic metre on Tuesday in Tangshan, a city in Beijing's 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. 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 state-run China Daily said.