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Reshuffling priorities in China
Publication Date : 10-03-2013
China'snew leaders are increasingly expected to focus attention on ecological issues
Cao Yushan is a quiet man. The former hydrology station worker, now in his mid-60s, is usually happy to let other people do the talking and it's only when his favorite topic arises that he opens up. Mere mention of the Liaohe River in Liaoning province will prompt a barrage of stories as Cao becomes animated.
Having spent three decades working at the river's hydrology station, Cao watched the water deteriorate from clean in the 1980s to turbid and fetid in the 1990s. However, in recent years, the waters have gradually become clearer again as a result of rigorous efforts to curb pollution.
In 1996, the river was listed as one of the most polluted in China. "In the early 1990s, the water was still drinkable. However, after countless manufacturers erected heavily polluting factories along the banks, the river died within just a few years. The fish died off, and even the birds did not dare to land," Cao recalled.
Today, the river presents a very different spectacle. On summer mornings, when the residents of the nearby villages are still sound asleep, the surface of the river is already dotted with waterfowl such as egrets and wild ducks.
"The cleaner environment has boosted tourism. Many sightseers visit the Liaohe River on the weekends and during the holidays. Given the state of the river when I worked for the hydrology station, I find it hard to accurately describe how happy I am to see this. I come and walk by the river almost every day," said Cao.
But success never comes easily. The improvements were achieved at great financial cost as successive administrations in Liaoning made environmental protection a cornerstone policy. As a means of curbing the pollution, the government has closed 70 per cent of the province's papermaking factories and built 99 new sewage plants.
One of the major proponents of the cleanup was Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who as provincial Party chief from 2004 to 2007 gave high priority to the task of preventing pollution.
The fact that Li and some of the other new members of the Politburo Standing Committee placed great importance on environmental protection during their rise through the ranks meant that the inclusion of a concept known as "Beautiful China" in the national development plan came as little surprise, said Guo.
New Party chief Xi Jinping, who spent 17 years working in the southeastern province of Fujian, also came up with the idea of developing the environment as a means of attracting more investment and fostering the growth of green-related industries.
To cope with serious soil erosion, Xi proposed an "ecological province" strategy in 2002. That saw Fujian become one of the first in a number of pilot provinces for ecological construction. After more than a decade of effort, countless previously barren mountains have been clothed in greenery and Fujian has become one of the top-ranked provinces in terms of the quality of its water and air and ecological environment.
The idea was extended to Zhejiang when Xi was assigned to work there in the mid-1980s. As party chief, he established a system to supervise the work of 11 subordinate cities and districts.
Under Xi, Zhejiang's ecological environment index was ranked number one among China's provinces and cities.
Zhang Dejiang, one of the new members of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, was Party secretary of three provinces - Zhejiang, Guangdong and Jilin - and also of Chongqing, a huge urban sprawl in southwest China.
During Zhang's time in Guangdong, the Environment Protection Plan for the Pearl River Delta became the country's first green initiative formulated through cooperation between a province and the Environmental Protection Ministry, according to a 2006 report in People's Daily. It was also the first regional environmental planning project to win legislative approval.
Zhang proposed the plan to the ministry in 2003 as a means of fundamentally changing and improving the environmental quality of Guangdong. In the three years that followed, Zhang accorded greater importance to the prevention of pollution and the supervision of environmental issues. As a guarantee to the authorities that the plan would work as efficiently as possible, Zhang invited academics and environmental experts to participate in drawing up the blueprint.
In 2004, Zhang's provincial administration submitted a proposal called The Environmental Protection Plan for the Pearl River Delta for review by the National People's Congress, attracting great interest among committee members and sometimes prompting heated discussions.
Although they have experience of life in the provinces, China's new leaders face a daunting task. In November, the 18th National Party Congress emphasised the importance of ecological progress and advocated the building of a "Beautiful China", but the general environment is deteriorating and pollution is increasing.
"The inauguration of the new government comes shortly after heavy smog and haze shrouded Beijing and several other large cities," said Guo from the PLA National Defense University. "That will serve to remind the leaders of the severity of the problem and the urgent need to solve it."
In 2006, Liaoning launched a policy called The Decision on the Implementation of a Scientific Outlook and Strengthening Environmental Protection. Reclamation of the Liaohe River was one of the document's key projects.
In 2001, 2004 and 2006, the provincial government signed a number of agreements on environmental protection targets with local cities, officials charged with the prevention and control of pollution, and a large number of companies. To aid the work, the government established a special fund to allocate 100 million yuan (US$16 million) annually to subsidise the efforts to eradicate pollution in the Liaohe River, according to a 2006 report in China Environment News.
"The new leaders have great experience of working at the grassroots level and that's given them a deep understanding of the environmental problems. They also have experience of tackling the issue," said Guo Fenghai, professor of Marxism studies at the PLA National Defense University.
A tough challenge
The heavy smog that lasted from January 10 to 15 affected more than 80 per cent of cities from the northeast to the northwest and the central provinces to the coastal regions of the southeast. But that was just one of the four large-scale incidences of smog to hit China during January.
"I hope that, in addition to managing the economy, the new leaders can also make full use of their experiences in different provinces, regions and industries to help local officials rethink the relationship between the economy and the environment and seek a balance. If not, this unbalanced development will definitely lead to disastrous consequences," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an environmental NGO.
However, despite the improvements, the new government still faces a tough challenge. Environmental problems are interlocked and instead of having a limited impact on individual cases, such as a river or a village, they have become regional causes for concern. In the case of rivers, for example, polluted water can flow through several provinces or cities, and smog often shrouds half of the country, affecting the health of hundreds of millions of people.
"Solving these problems will require cooperation across a range of industries and regions. I think the new leaders' long-standing experience of local politics will help them understand the importance of cooperation, which will allow for better decision making," said Ma.
That view was echoed by Ding Yuanzhu, deputy head of the Policy Advisory Department at the Chinese Academy of Governance.
"China's environmental problems have accumulated gradually during the past three decades. Therefore, prevention and improvement will also take time and will require various types of experience and research. Luckily, information is becoming easier to access, which brings fresh opportunities for environmental protection and prevention of pollution. I hope the efforts to safeguard the environment will benefit from the new leaders' experience of local politics," Ding said.
Gu Haibing, professor of public management at Beijing's Renmin University of China, spoke of people's high expectations. "People have the right to a better environment and the freedom to pursue a decent living environment. A heavily polluted environment deprives them of those rights completely. I hope the leaders can help people regain them," he said.
"How is it that these heavily polluting projects can be built and put into production so smoothly? What is the function of environmental assessment teams if that can happen? The Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of the National People's Congress Standing Committee must fully enforce the supervisory obligations on the Ministry of Environmental Protection and oversee the process of environmental assessment," he said.
The ministry also needs to ensure that information relating to environmental assessments is freely available.
China's current capacity to evaluate environmental loss lags far behind those in many other countries. That results in inadequate punishments for those who violate the environment and can serve as tacit encouragement for those whose behaviour leads to pollution, he added.
(With contribution from Peng Yining)