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Atmospheric pollution has emerged as a major public health issue in China. Public perception and acceptable risk levels of air pollution can prompt individual behavioral changes and play a major role in the public’s response to health risks. Therefore, to explore these responses and evaluate what constitutes publicly acceptable concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), questionnaire surveys were conducted in three representative cities of China: Beijing, Nanjing, and Guangzhou. Great differences in public risk perception were revealed. Public perception of the health effects of air pollution (Effect) and familiarity with it (Familiarity) were significantly higher in the winter than in the summer, and also during severe haze days compared with typical days. The public perception of trust in the government (Trust) was consistent across all conditions. Exposure to severe haze pollution and experiencing harms from it were key factors influencing public willingness to respond to haze. These results reflected individual exposure levels correlating closely with risk perception and acceptance of PM2.5. However, a crucial gap exists between public acceptable risk levels (PARL) of air pollution and the policy objectives of the State Council’s Action Plan. Thus, policymakers can utilize this study to develop more targeted measures to combat air pollution.Public perception of Effect and Familiarity were significantly higher in the winter than in the summer.The correlation significances between ADD and each public perception factors existed diversity.Sensitive and vulnerable subpopulations to air pollution are discovered.SHE and HEDTH were key factors influencing public willingness to respond to haze.There remains a gap between PARL of air pollution and the policy objectives of the Action Plan.