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The “special interests” destroying China’s environment

The political will exists to combat China’s pollution, but collusion between business and local governments remains a major obstacle. In a new column for chinadialogue, Liu Jianqiang asks: who is really harming the country’s interests?

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2006 was a disastrous year for China’s environment, and it saw yet more green issues troubling China’s leaders. In the past year, politicians issued even more statements on the environment than in 2005, and called repeatedly for the strict enforcement of environmental laws. Yet they have failed to slow the rot. Last year, accidents causing serious pollution occurred every two days on average. Central government missed its annual targets to reduce energy consumption by 4% and to reduce pollution emissions by 2%.

Meanwhile, the Chinese people found their surroundings increasingly unbearable, and submitted 1,650 complaints every day, a total of 600,000 and a 30% rise on the previous year. An opinion poll found that more than one in 10 of China’s urban residents consider the cities they inhabit “unfit for living.” Four in 10 are unhappy with their local air quality and believe pollution is affecting their family’s health.

1.3 billion people are suffering. But who is at fault?

On January 15, I interviewed the deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Pan Yue, and asked him who is damaging China’s environment.

In response to this question, many officials will point an accusing finger at poverty. China is poor, they say, and in need of economic growth. And this will mean environmental sacrifices. In some heavily-polluted areas, officials will even tell you that it is better to choke to death than starve to death.

While this may ring true to the uninformed, in reality, those suffering the worst pollution are clothed and at no risk of starving. But the pollution they face on a daily basis causes all kinds of illnesses, including cancer. Without medical insurance they die penniless – and the tainted profits of factory owners fail to trickle down to their pockets.

Pan Yue, outspoken as ever, rejects the claim that living with pollution is a “humane” alternative to poverty, and holds that China’s bureaucracy is at fault. In China, he says, economic growth trumps all else and local government officials, who rely on their superiors – rather than an electorate – for jobs and advancement, are judged according to their contribution to GDP. As a result, they pursue economic growth at any cost to the environment.

Pan’s explanation is closer to the truth, but it is still not the whole story. It assumes that these cadres wish to do well, but are forced by circumstances to favour the economy over the environment.

However, simple economic success is no guarantee of political approval. For example, last year the central government halted construction of an illegal power station in Inner Mongolia and disciplined the provincial official who had supported the project.

Central government is not fond of officials who achieve economic growth at the expense of the environment. There is great political will backing environmental protection. When Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, he proposed a “new path to industrialisation” and “putting a renewed emphasis on sustainable development.” The following year saw the advent of the “scientific concept of development,” and in 2006, targets were set for the reduction of energy consumption and pollution. Yet 2006 was still the worst year China’s environment has known, and the frenzied construction of illegal factories continues across the country. With this in mind, I asked Pan Yue where the root of the problem lies.

He replied by revising his initial response. A “coalition of special interests,” combined with the flawed evaluation of officials’ performance, is what is causing environmental degradation, he said. Officials aim to boost their records by supporting heavy industry, while the businesses they protect convert our shared, environmental resources into profits. As a consequence, they not only interfere with central government’s macroeconomic controls but also infringe on the rights of the public.

This is the truth of the matter. Although Pan did not say explicitly that local government and business form a special interest group, the Chinese reader can understand that this is the case, simply by observing what is done to China’s environment on a daily basis.

Consider the controversy caused by the waterproofing of the lakebeds at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. The park is run by a government organisation, which launched an illegal project, undertaken by a commercial company it had itself founded – all with local government support. Or the situation in west China’s Kangding, where six Tibetan herders were arrested for opposing a mining company’s occupation of their pastures and pollution of their water supply. The owner of the mine did not even need to put in an appearance; the local government simply sent the police along. Such cases are all too common.

Early this year, Pan Yue used a new method of environmental protection, the “regional permit restriction,” to block new projects by four major energy providers in four cities. Despite this crackdown on the special interest groups formed by local government and business, some officials and their allies still tried to resist. Southern Weekend journalist, Xiaojian Zhao, quoted a deputy mayor with responsibility for the environment, who vowed to: “Check each and every company one by one.” And added: “This will not happen again.” But at the same time, SEPA officials caught a local coking plant secretly discharging its toxic effluent.

Collusion between local governments and business is nothing new. Massive power stations, huge chemical plants, mines and paper-making factories may wreck the environment, but they are very profitable – and kickbacks make their way to local government. Many cadres are engaged in blatant profiteering, they are not aiming for promotions. But the higher they rise in government the bigger the companies they deal with – and the greater harm they do.

This is becoming better recognised, and SEPA has worked hard to prevent it. Pan Yue launched major environmental protection crackdowns in 2005 and 2006, which hit the corporation responsible for constructing the Three Gorges dam and the oil giant Sinopec. But despite these moves, China’s environment is still worsening.

SEPA alone is inadequate. All central government departments need to fulfill their duties to environmental protection, but these duties are fragmented across numerous departments. The National Development and Reform Commission promotes sustainable development. The Meteorology Bureau publishes data on sandstorms, while the Forestry Bureau fights the desertification that causes them. The Ministry of Construction manages urban wastewater, while the State Oceanic Administration monitors pollution in the oceans and the Ministry of Water Resources manages China’s rivers. The Ministry of Agriculture oversees pesticide and fertiliser use. But the Ministry of Land and Resources manages the soil. There is precious little authority left for SEPA itself, and when it comes into conflict with interest groups other government departments remain silent.

But in my opinion, the most important question to ask is this: what should the Chinese government do at this critical time?

Liu Jianqiang, born in 1969, is a senior reporter with Guangzhou-based weekly, Southern Weekend. He has a long-standing interest in environmental issues.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

铿锵有力的文章, 只捣中国环境问题的要害!!




Punchy and revealing article!

Thanks to the author for disclosing the real reasons behind China's lack of advancement in pollution control.

It is such a revealing article, that everybody should not miss.

Environment quality matters to everybody, but "special interest" groups just benefit a handful of people.

The public in China should unite to fight against those groups. No doubt, it will be a long-lasting battle, and whether the public can win it or not depends upon the strength of efforts exerted by the Central government and its local branches.

Bureaucracy is a world issue instead of being exclusive to China. However, China needs to restrain its bureaucracy, which should be a focus of pollution control efforts in the country.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Exciting article!

Support brilliant journalist Jianqiang Liu! China has few journalists with the strength and qualifications of Liu.

Support Pan Yue for his new style of working as a senior official.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Can environment protection not go with econonomic growth?

Is it true that environment protection is completely opposite to economic growth, and they could not proceed in parallel? I think this is still a topic worth debates and research.

Economists and sociologists should contribute to this research and offer rational theory to guide healthy economic development.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


"在中央政府有一个晴天,而在外省有阴天。在外区已经下雨了,在城里很多人因水灾而淹死“。我想问中国人的身体为什么要破坏?在很大程度上是为了赚一大批美元——就是回崩溃经济的货币,其中欠款都不回还了。这个是不是完全没有用呢?中国的出口畅旺完了以后,经济发展要向什么方向走?第二个第计划是什么呢?有人觉得“保护环境可能是经济发展的相反”,我想指出发展需要很多能源和新装备,建筑,基础设施的材料。经济上所有的能源一半是发展过程的结果。而且生态系统不是经济的子系统,不只是资源库和无限用的垃圾堆。经济系统是生态的子系统。它受到生态的限制——这个是比较有道理的观念。如果经济太过分地危害生态就会用完耗尽的能源和材料,也回消灭支持人类的生态系统服务。这个你可以从能源危机和身体问题看的出来,也是跟中国对温室效应的贡献有关。如果中国人的身体被破坏,发展的好处不比它的坏处多。不民主的话,这样的“代价”不会在经济计划包括—不算就回忽略。显示的是,中央政府的力量不够强,不回解决这些问题。Brian Davey

What is Plan B?

"Out of a clear sunny day in the central government it becomes cloudy in the provinces. In the districts it is already raining and in the cities people are drowning in the floods."

One has to ask for what is the health of the Chinese people being destroyed? Largely to accumulate a huge pile of dollars - the currency of an economy heading to collapse, whose debts can never be repaid. Is this not an exercise in futility? When the Chinese export boom collapses, and it will eventually, what direction will economic development then take? What is "plan b"?

To the person that asks "if it is true that environment protection is completely opposite to economic growth" I would point out growth requires huge amounts of energy and materials for new equipment, buildings, infrastructure. A half of all energy in an economy is the result of the growth process. Further, the ecological system is not a sub-system of the economy. It is not merely a resource store and dump that can be used up indefinitely. The economic system is a sub system of the ecological one. It is bounded and constrained by the ecological system - this is the more rational viewpoint. If the economy encroaches into the ecological system too far it will exhaust the sources of depletable energy and materials and will destroy the ecological system services which sustain all life. You can see that energy crisis and in the declining health effects on the Chinese people plus China's contribution to the greenhouse effect. If the health of the Chinese people is destroyed then the additional benefits of growth are being exceed by the additional costs. However, without democracy at a local level these "costs" are not adequately taken into account in economic decision making - they are not counted but ignored. It seems clear that the central government does not have sufficient power to do anything about this.

Brian Davey

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The problems of China's environment and real estate market

The administration of China's environment and the regulation of its real estate market are closely related. As China's central government shows ever greater concern and determination in its tightening of regulatory measures, the real estate bubble nonetheless inflates ever more; the common people are still unable to purchase a home, while the homes of the wealthy increase in size and quantity. In the same manner, China's environmental administration continues to worsen, not because it lacks force, but because it does not keep pace with environmental degradation, much less with the disintegrative effects of localized collusion. The new central government is no doubt the most bold and transparent to date, but its chronic afflictions run too deep, and in the short term it will be very difficult to consummately resolve them.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Unhealthy old customs die hard

Renminbi cannot buy a clear sky. Just after the environmental bureau's "environmental storm" has passed comes a dust storm that blots out heaven and earth. The corrupt officials produced by the bureaucratic organs and rich men of all descriptions conspire and communicate with each other secretly. As a result, the country has its assets washed away, its ecology deteriorates, the people suffer calamities. Government meets with a crisis of confidence, an evil force has already grown up, deep-rooted, and decrees are blocked up. Superiors are deceived, subordinates deluded. We need the whole body of the people and those officials who have a conscience to unite, to use the surgical instrument of the law, as with the removal of a poisonous tumour. The Chinese giant can now recover from this entire abnormal metamorphosis, moving from the feudal notion of "the individual first" to "the people first".

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



No escape from fate for the “special interests”

Unfortunately, the “special interests” are with us on the same planet, hence; regardless of the enormous influence own by of them, they are still unable to avoid the impact caused by destroying the environment. The special interest of environment ultimately will be harmonized with human being, eventually all being will assume disastrous consequences from destroying environment.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Chinese leaders may possibly better understand than us

Chinese leaders may possibly better understand than us, but where are the solutions? They have got the same unlimited confusion as us. Severe total transformation of society should not be carrying out; but also when partial transformation can be eliminated? A balance should be struck, if possible, between severe total transformation of society and partial change; however, this may be an unachievable ideal.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


"保护环境就不能和经济发展并肩前行吗?" 不是,这个不对,美国的环保商业直接或间接地提供百万就业机会。这就求厂家和消费者接受临时利润的减少和小物价上涨,(想想)你和你家人身体价值是多少,(就可以接受这样的现实).

the special interests

"Is it true that environment protection is completely opposite to economic growth"

No, it is not untrue, the environmental industries in the US provide jobs for millions directly and indirectly. It does require factory owners and consumers to accept temporary reductions in profits and a small increase in prices, but what is the dollar value of you and your family's health?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



the special interests 2

A considerable group of special interests are the foreign companies who left N. America and the EU to come to developing countries to escape pollution and labor laws.