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?

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.