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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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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

环境破坏者应该被治重罪

破坏环境者是在损害公共的利益,而这种行为以及袒护这种行为的人,应该被处以极刑,因为这些人做的事情所产生的影响,比杀人犯的影响还要巨大。

Destroying environment should be heavily punished

Those who destroy environment is doing damage to public interests. These conducts and the ones to protect them should be sentenced to heavy punishment. That's because, that these people are casting influences way larger than those of killers.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

可持续性还是可持续发展?

中国政府的政治意愿并不是完全无可挑剔的。虽然中国政府发表了很好的政治声明,到2010年要提高4%的能源利用率,减少2%的污染。但是,有没有认真讨论或是研究过应该如何才能打破地方政府或企业特殊利益群体的联合,从而实现目标呢?当然,中国有相关的法律,但是这些法律得到严格执行了吗?如果污染罚金足够高,那么罚款会起到作用。而坐牢则是更好的办法。但政府会采取这种严厉措施吗?另外,我们经常会听到这样一种论调:中国需要先发展,治理污染只会延缓经济发展的速度。这种看法不仅代表了一些地方政府的观点,甚至中央政府的一些部门也这么看,比如像国家发改委。因此,环境的可持续性被“可持续发展”所取代,实际上则是“持续的发展”。如果知道06年中国GDP的增长超过了11%,你就不会惊讶于06年成为中国最多灾多难的一年。事实上,现在也许是中国控制污染的最佳时机。控制污染也许会使发展放慢,但是这样的发展才是真正的、健康的发展,而且中国的经济增长仍然会在全球处于领导地位。

Sustainability or subtanable development?

The political will of the Chinese Government is not completely unquestionable. Certainly it made sound political statements and set the clear goal of improving energy efficiency by 4% and reducing pollution by 2% each by 2010. However, is there serious discussion or research on how to break the alliance of special interest groups of local (?) governments and businesses to reach this goal? Certainly there are related laws. But are they seriously enforced? Pollution fines do only work if they are prohibitively high. Jail time works better. Does the political will translate into this kind of serious actions?
More, we often hear the rhetoric that China needs to develop FIRST and tackling pollution such as CO2 would slow down its economic growth. This ideology is not only represented by local governments, but also by departments of the Central Government, such as National Development and Reform Commission. Accordingly, sustainability of the environment is replaced with "sustainable development", in fact "sustained development". That 2006 was China's most disastrous year came not as a surprise if you looked at its frenzy GDP growth rate over 11%! As matter of fact, it might be the best timing for China to control pollution. Keeping pollution under control might slow down the growth rate, but the resulting growth rate is true and healthy growth, and China’s growth will still lead that of the rest of the world.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

政治改革

解决问题的关键在于政治改革, 加强公共舆论监督, 否则新的问题总会不断出现.
人民应该有言论的自由, 才能阻止腐败.同时, 地方要军政分开, 才能有效防止事实被掩盖.
我所提的建议也许不够, 但在我看来, 问题的根本是加强民主建设.

Political reform

The key is political reform, without eletion, supervision by public and media, and accountability to the people, any solution under this form of government is temporary and desperate at best -- one problem falls, another 100 will rise.
People HAS TO speak freely, this is critical to slowing down the deterioration, police and paramilitary forces HAVE TO be independent of the local bureacracy system to prevent from being ordered to crack down the truth. My wisdom may be insufficient but I firmly believe that democracy is the only solution to my country's problems.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

法律法律法律!

中国需要强有力的法律系统和对权力的监管

Law, Law, Law!

China needs to strengthen its legal system and further supervise the authorities.

This comment was translated by Laura Bewley.