Chen Guangbiao, who made his fortune in the recycling business and is a high-profile philanthropist, on Wednesday handed out soda pop-sized cans of air, purportedly from far-flung, pristine regions of China such as Xinjiang in the northwest to Taiwan, the southeast coast.
"I want to tell mayors, county chiefs and heads of big companies: don't just chase GDP growth, don't chase the biggest profits at the expense of our children and grandchildren and at the cost of sacrificing our ecological environment", Chen said.
China's air quality is closely watched as it fluctuates dramatically from day to day but in recent weeks has registered far into the unhealthy zone.
Air pollution is measured in terms of PM2.5, or particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which are absorbed by the lungs and can cause heart and lung disease. The World Health Organisation recommends a daily PM2.5 level of 20 and says that levels greater than 300 are serious health hazards.
Beijing's air quality frequently surges past a level of 500, and on January 12 soared to 755, the highest in memory.
"I go outside, walk for about 20 minutes, and my throat hurts and I feel dizzy", Chen told Reuters in an interview on a busy Beijing sidewalk.
He handed out green and orange cans of "Fresh Air", with a caricature of himself on them saying, "Chen Guangbiao is a good man".
"Be a good person, have a good heart, do good things," reads a message along the bottom of each can.
The 44-year-old entrepreneur, whose wealth is estimated at $740 million according to last year's Hurun Rich List of China's super-wealthy, is an ebullient and tireless self-promoter.
He is something of a celebrity in China, with more than 4 million followers on Sina Weibo, China's most popular Twitter-like microblogging platform.
He concedes that his canned-air effort is tongue in cheek, but says it's a way to awaken people to the importance of environmental protection. His campaign is attracting bemusement but also plaudits from the media and from people desperate to escape the smog.
"Beijing's air really needs to improve, so we need a good man like him to appear," said a 21-year-old resident surnamed Hu. "It reminds people to use less fuel and do what they can for Beijing's air".
The cans of air were free on Wednesday, but usually sell for 5 yuan (80 cents) with proceeds going to poor regions of China, and places of historic revolutionary importance.
Sales, which had been moderate, took off after the recent streak of bad air days, with 8 million cans sold in the last 10 days, Chen said.