China’s parliamentary delegates attack air quality fraud

Participants in the 'Lianghui' in smoggy Beijing have appealed for action on deliberate distortion of air pollution data

In late February, only a day after winds finally blew away the week-long smog that had engulfed an area of one million square kilometres, Beijing turned grey again. Appropriately, many of the political delegates arriving for China’s annual parliamentary session came armed with proposals to help tackle air pollution. 

In the year since certain Chinese cities started publishing air quality data, some have seen their figures consistently improve – despite worsening environmental quality. Delegates want to know how accurate that data really is.

They are right to ask. An investigation by the Shandong Environmental Information and Monitoring Centre found that data is being faked in one of two ways. The first is to meddle with the calculations: add in a division by 10, and pollution of 1,000 milligrams per cubic metre shrinks to just 100 milligrams.

Another method is to undermine the data-collection system. Filters can be fitted to monitoring kit, or pipes disconnected so the equipment doesn’t get proper samples.

Others are even more blatant. “Some companies are just giving the authorities complete garbage,” said one equipment manufacturer. “The machines aren’t even plugged in, yet the data keeps coming.”

A delegate to the National People’s Congress (NPC), the upper parliamentary body, told me that leaders of one city, sore from being named repeatedly as the country’s most polluted, ordered an investigation. The environmental bureau chief complained. How could there still be pollution, he asked, when the monitoring stations had been so carefully placed in the forest park.

Vested interests

Sun Taili is a member of China’s lower parliamentary body, the CPPCC, with longstanding interest in air pollution. He says that, while many argue that action needs to be taken against big polluters, it is the more numerous small businesses and factories that are targeted instead. Rarely are major or listed companies hit, and there is no sign of the most serious violators being closed down.

Central government has repeatedly asked Hebei province to clamp down on emissions from the steel industry – a major earner for the province. Yet years later Hebei still has six times more steel furnaces than the US and wastegas emissions that equal those of the EU. 

Even during the recent smog, 12 inspection groups dispatched by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) to Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei found many cases of polluters continuing as normal.

On February 21, ministry officials issued a warning to Tianjin’s Chentang Thermoelectric Company after it left 10,000 square metres of construction waste exposed, with no effort to prevent dust. Three days later, nothing had been done.

On February 24, I saw plumes of dust rising 10 metres in the air from lorry-loads of waste being dumped at a Tianjin steel firm.

Since 2013, governments at all levels have in theory adopted powerful anti-smog measures. Firm commitments have been made and plenty of funding allocated. But when it comes to implementation, there is sometimes more talking than doing.

Why the reluctance to take real action? Sun Taili thinks part of the problem is that officials worry a drop in economic output will look bad on their work records. But that’s not the only issue.

In 2013, the police in one northern city raided a factory which had been breaching pollution rules. But when they arrived, the factory had already cleaned up its act.

 “Are they being protected?” asks Sun. Companies both large and small need to be dealt with, and any corruption resulting in weak oversight rooted out, he says.

To tackle some local governments’ reservations about dealing with smog, Song Xinfang, an NPC delegate, has appealed for mandatory annual air quality improvements, with binding mechanisms for enforcement.

How to make polluters too scared to pollute?

But the law, the most effective binding force, is very limited. China’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law has not been updated since the year 2000 and cannot cope with the complex reality of pollution today.

Sun Jing, another NPC delegate, said that one major problem with the law is that the costs of breaking it are often too low. A company found to have faked pollution data can only be fined a maximum of 50,000 yuan (US$8,100), less than the cost of treating its pollution for a single day. Zhang Bo, head of environmental protection for Shandong, says punishments should be heavier, and in serious cases enough to bankrupt a firm. 

Public supervision is needed if polluters are to be brought into line. But technical barriers have long excluded the public from pollution monitoring. NPC delegate Deng Zhonghan said the data collected, particularly at the source of pollution, should be put online so the public can be informed in real time. Song Xinfang added that the fight against smog will be a long-lasting “people’s war”. The people need to be able to stand up and speak for themselves. 

In the 29 provincial government work reports published so far in 2014, only the word “reform” appears more frequently than “smog”. On March 1, new regulations on pollution came into force in Beijing: companies that refuse to halt or limit operations on heavily polluted days can be fined up to 500,000 yuan (US$81,400); and fines of 3,000 yuan (US$490) can be imposed for vehicles breaching emissions standards. Public opinion and policy are both getting tougher.

This article was originally published on People.com.cn