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The sun sets on a polluted day in Beijing on Jan. 18, 2020.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Fears of a deadly virus outbreak have kept much of China inside for the past three weeks. For people living in the country’s capital region, though, another menace has infected the air: thick layers of smog whose presence has puzzled people looking at a city where roads and industry have gone silent.

If factories aren’t operating and the roads are empty, residents have wondered, where has the smog come from over much of the last few weeks?

Even more puzzling: Chinese authorities have vaunted their progress in cleaning up the air, saying pollution in 2019 fell to half the level of 2013. The United Nations has complimented China for “a feat” in combatting air pollution unmatched by any other “city or region on the planet.”

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But the lingering shroud during the coronavirus outbreak has brought a dark visual reminder of how intractable a problem smog continues to be in China, while raising new worries that efforts to revive an economy devastated by the virus will reverse progress authorities have made in reducing airborne toxins.

The problem lies in places such as Handan, China, where Hongri Steel Co. continues to operate like usual. “All of our factory workers are on the job,” said Pan Xusheng, who works in marketing at Hongri.

In Tangshan, too, Delong Steel Ltd. is going at full tilt. In the first two weeks of February, with much of the country on lockdown and most of its manufacturing industry closed, China’s output of raw steel rose 3.2 per cent, compared with last year, while raw iron was up 0.9 per cent and rolled steel production rose 2.5 per cent, according to statistics gathered by the China Iron and Steel Industry Association. China had already set a new record for steel output in 2019.

Meanwhile, the country’s coal consumption has also rebounded to near-record levels, as companies install large numbers of coal-fired power plants. Nationally, coking plants are operating at rates below levels from last year, but blast furnaces are operating at roughly the same rate as last year; in Tangshan, which is not far from Beijing, they are operating at a higher rate.

Part of this is normal. While the rest of the country takes off work for the Lunar New Year break, which this year has been extended because of the virus, some heavy industry continues apace. “Steel production is a continuous process, which won’t be halted during holidays,” said Xu Xiangchun, an analyst at mysteel.com.

But analysts have also drawn a link between the country’s slowing economy and a bid by its authorities to maintain momentum by returning to the industrial engines that powered the country’s growth.

The smog during the virus lockdown has served as an unmistakable illustration of the continued importance of heavy industry.

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Between 2013 and 2018, ”we made great progress,” said Zhang Xingying, director of the business science and technology division of the National Satellite Meteorological Centre. He cited strengthened environmental laws and the closing of large numbers of industrial facilities with high emissions.

“However, we have not seen much progress in the past two years because of unusual difficulties,” he said. “It’s easy to improve your test score from 40 to 60. It’s hard to get it from 95 to 100.”

“People’s sentiment toward smog is understandable,” he added. “But from our professional point of view, the country’s basic emissions are relatively high, patterns of energy use have not changed and the coal is still a primary source.”

For those gazing out on smog in Beijing, weather hasn’t helped. Winds have blown smog toward the capital, which is largely surrounded by mountains that trap bad air. High humidity levels have further dimmed visibility.

But the resurgence in energy-intensive activity has been “a superlarge reality check,” one that has demonstrated how much air pollution those industries still create, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, and one of China’s most prominent environmental advocates. The virus outbreak has led to a “shutting down of almost all other sources” of smog, but the air remains bad.

“It just reminds us that we need to focus more on the restructuring of the industrial structure in this region,” he said. “It’s still too heavy, too energy-intensive.”

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He is optimistic that change is under way. Some of the largest banks in China have sought Mr. Ma’s help for data on the environmental performance of different companies. He hopes that will lead to changes in lending that will push polluters to change.

At the same time, the virus has caused deep pain to the Chinese economy, and analysts say national efforts to make up for lost ground – heavy stimulus spending is expected from Beijing – risks worsening the problem.

“I’m very worried about what the government might do to catch up to GDP targets after this is over,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

There has been “a lot of talk about stimulus and nothing about which sectors should be targeted. There would be a lot of potential to stimulate the clean energy sectors which have been struggling recently, for example. But without guidance, the money will just flow to the same old unneeded projects.”

Authorities have already offered some elements of support to steel makers, eliminating highway tolls to assist the transport of goods and removing health checkpoints near factories that had frustrated the movement of workers.

Still, orders have dried up and logistics problems have made it difficult to get raw materials on time. Delong Steel, like many others, is placing much of what it makes into stockpiles that are quickly increasing in size. “At present, our inventory is very large, so capital flows are seriously affected,” said Mr. Wang, a worker at Delong who only gave his surname. “Since we are stockpiling all of our products, we are out of money.”

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Still, the industry and its employees are keen to continue work.

“We will try to maintain normal operations,” said Mr. Pan, at Hongri. “It’s important to the economy. But it’s more important to us as individuals. If we don’t produce, we won’t be able to feed ourselves.”

With a report from Alexandra Li

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