Chinese turn to gallows humor and superheroes as they hunker down in smog

People wearing masks cycle past Tiananmen Gate during the smog after a red alert was issued for heavy air pollution in Beijing, China, December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Lee

A Beijing driver calls a radio station in a panic. The smog is so thick he’s just shot through five red lights because he couldn’t see properly and wants to know what to do.

“It’s fine, the smog is so bad nobody could see your license plate,” the host reassures him, in a joke circulating on Chinese social media sites.

As large parts of northern China suffer under thick air pollution, Chinese people are taking to the internet with gallows humor to cope with the thick blanket of smog.

Restrictions on daily life, like implementing an odd-even license plate system to halve the number of cars on the road, have been a particular focus.

In another joke, U.S. President Barack Obama angrily throws an intelligence report on the table, wanting to know what sort of advanced weapons system could cause Beijing to vanish from satellite surveillance.

He asks a collection of superheroes, including Iron Man, Batman and the Hulk, what to do and who can go there, but they all hang their heads in shame.

“Optimus Prime can do it! He doesn’t need to breathe,” pipes up Wolverine, recommending the robot who can turn into a truck in the Hollywood movie Transformers, which is wildly popular in China.

But Optimus Prime quietly answers: “My license plate is restricted today”, referring to the odd-even system.

While most jokes could not be judged politically sensitive, a few offer indirect criticism of perceived government inaction.

One joke lists ways to deal with the pollution.

“Individual therapy: put a mask on. Family therapy: buy health insurance. If you have money and the time: go on holiday. If you’ve no class: emigrate. National therapy: wait for the wind.”

(Reporting by Gao Liangping and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait)