Visitors gather near an entrance to the Forbidden city during a very hazy day in Beijing Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013. People refused to venture outdoors and buildings disappeared into Beijing's murky skyline on Sunday as the capital's air quality went off the index. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
An eccentric Chinese multimillionaire's latest venture may not be the cure for Beijing's ongoing air pollution problem, but it's bringing smiles to the faces of some of its choking residents.
Chen Guangbiao, a southern Chinese tycoon with a penchant for madcap showmanship, is selling what the capital dearly needs after the past two weeks - fresh air.
On Wednesday (January 20), Chen and his colleagues took to the streets to give away hundreds of cans of fresh air purportedly collected from far-flung and pristine regions of China.
Each one is emblazoned with the words: "Chen Guangbiao, a Good Man' and 'Fresh Air' below a beaming portrait of Chen.
Chen, who made his fortune in the recycling business, is one of China's highest-profile philanthropists and has 4 million following his microblog.
He said selling clean air could one day be a reality if things don't improve.
"I'm selling this clean air to remind everyone to protect our environment. Selling this air, I am using an exaggerated method, a principle, to tell everyone that if we don't start protecting the air in our environment, in ten years our descendants will all be wearing gas masks," he said.
The 44-year-old entrepreneur, whose wealth is estimated at 740 million U.S. dollars according to last year's Hurun Rich List of China's super-wealthy, has said he will leave his entire fortune to charity after he dies.
His critics say his philanthropy and public stunts, which he calls 'performance art', are brazen self-promotion. Chen disagrees.
"Nothing I do is for fame or for personal benefit. I just want to use the years I have left in my life to tell more people to protect the environment, to be good people, have good hearts and do good deeds," he said.
Beijing's air quality often registers far into the unhealthy zone, but this month has shocked citizens with the worst ever recorded smog.
PM2.5, or particulate matter 2.5 micrometres in diameter found in smog can be absorbed by the lungs and cause serious heart and lung disease.
The World Health Organization recommends a daily PM2.5 level of 20 and says that index levels greater than 300 are serious health hazards.
Beijing's air quality on January 12 soared to 755. On Wednesday levels hovered over 300.
Some were won over by Chen's message.
"I think Beijing's air really needs to improve. So we need a good man like him to appear. When I first saw it I thought it was a drink. I wouldn't have imagined it was fresh air. It's really great. It reminds people to use less fuel, and do what they can for Beijing's air. I hope everyone can work together," said 30-year-old Yang Zhe.
Thirty-one-year-old Beijing resident Miss Hu, who like many had her photo taken with Chen, thought he was onto something.
"I think that no matter whether it's a gimmick or just Mr. Chen making another social phenomenon, I think it's very relevant right now. If the air keeps getting worse then he will have a huge market," she said.
Chen started his campaign last September, and footage provided by his office shows a truck which sold his cans as it made its way across the country.
Chen said the air in the cans came from remote areas like the Tibetan plateau and from sites of Communist revolutionary significance like Yan'an in northern Shaanxi province.
Footage provided by him shows people holding cans performing a slow dance and scooping the air inside.
Proceeds from selling the cans for five yuan ( 0.8 US dollars) each in different cities is donated to those poorer regions, Chen said.