China’s 13th Five-Year Plan emphasises ‘environmental shortcomings’

The government’s latest rubric indicates an intent to atone for environmental sins of the past, writes Tan Chang

China’s two annual high-level policy meetings, the People’s Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, begin this week.

Recently, state-owned news agency Xinhua published an article outlining Xi Jinping’s views on the country’s environmental weaknesses.The article garnered a great deal of attention and was interpreted as a prelude to the forthcoming 13th Five-Year Plan (13FYP) which will be announced at the close of the conferences.

At the start of each year, China’s minister of environmental protection delivers a speech at the National Environmental Protection Work Conference, which sets out the country’s environmental priorities for the next twelve months.

The priority, translated from the Chinese, is expressed as follows: 'putting environmental restoration at the centre of policy and endeavouring to make up for China’s environmental shortfall'.

‘Environmental shortfall’ is the latest rubric to emerge from central government, by which it will deliver an economic manifesto that places environmental action at the centre.

But when did the term environmental shortfall first enter central leadership parlance, and what can be inferred by its repeated usage?

New buzzword

Towards the end of 2012, Li Keqiang, the then vice premier, attended the annual meeting of China’s Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development.  

At the meeting, Li first mentioned environmental shortfall to Canada’s environment minister Peter Kent.

“China is facing a relative lack of resources and limited environmental capacity, which has already become a barrier to development,” said Li.

Before 2015, the term was rarely heard in leadership speeches. Since the summer of last year, however, it has appeared regularly in public speeches made by Chinese leaders.

It caught on notably after Xi Jinping used it in a speech last June. The president told a forum on poverty and social development that the key to economic and social progress during the 13FYP (2016 -2020) was making up for 'shortfalls', including environmental ones.

After this, China’s minister of environmental protection, Chen Jining, used the term ‘environmental shortfall’ twice publicly – a sign that the new buzzword was gaining traction.

Rural areas, where environmental problems are felt most acutely, must be a priority for a prosperous society to to emerge across China, Chen told officials.  

He added that these problems also present a great opportunity for breakthroughs and innovation.

A call to action

It is clear that urgent action is needed to make up for China’s environmental shortfall, and this needs to be done early on in the next five years.

In October 2015, the 18th Session of the Fifth Plenary Session passed a draft proposal of the 13FYP.

"Making up the shortfalls to make progress,” was one of the terms mentioned in the document. The indicated shortfall refers to “constrained resources and environmental deterioration”.

In China, experts have forecast that the poor quality of the environment could become the greatest barrier to achieving prosperity for all.

Zhou Hongchun, director of the State Council Development Research Centre, has stated that poverty, rapid urbanisation and public services will all be improved in 2020, and that one of the greatest added pressures on society are environmental issues.

As well as dealing with the shortfall, the government will attempt to make amends for decades of growth that ignored the environmental consequences. The next five years will see environmental measures becoming stricter at government-level.

Following the introduction of stringent farmland and water protection systems, central government has said it wants to go further by implementing even stricter environmental protection.

“The fundamental strategy of environmental protection is to prevent pollution at the source. The key to achieving this is strict management and meting our severe punishments as a deterrent,” said an official statement.

The solution

In September 2013, Xi Jinping delivered a landmark speech at a provincial committee session in Hebei province. He told attendees that he was going to remove their proverbial ‘straightjacket’.

Even though the province had slid down to seventh or eighth place nationally in terms of GDP, with respect to green development it had improved. Local governors and officials earned plaudits for taking measures that helped curb smog.

If success were judged simply on GDP growth while environmental problems deteriorated then this growth would be undermined, he said. 

President Xi urged local governments to contribute to green development and free themselves of the economic ‘straightjacket’ – by which he meant the long-held view of local governments that defines achievements in terms of GDP only.

The assumption that fast economic growth involves environmental sacrifice has largely been abandoned by China's top officials.

By using this achievement-based approach the central government is explicitly advocating environmental protection.

“Projects without a return on investment, products with no market [value], and those that do not ameliorate environmental [damage] will no longer be viable,” said an official statement.

This an edited version of an article originally published by Southern Weekly. Please read the original version here.