A move to greener pastures

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 April, 2006, 12:00am

Everyone seems to be talking about cleaning up pollution in the Pearl River Delta, which raises an interesting question. Will environmental degradation extend beyond the immediate region, as industrialisation spreads farther to the north, west and east?

The answer isn't clear, but there is some good news: leaders in areas where industry is likely to move, from the delta region, vow to pursue a sustainable path of development.

As part of a press delegation that visited Guangzhou, Qingyuan and Huizhou this week, I heard a lot of positive remarks by senior officials about the need to protect the environment. One can only hope that they mean what they say, and will not follow the strategy of 'polluting first, cleaning up later'.

That strategy has inflicted serious damage to the environment in Shenzhen and Dongguan . Now, rising costs are forcing many to move to Qingyuan and Huizhou.

Located north of Guangzhou, Qingyuan city's jurisdiction covers 19,200 sq km, with a population of 3.93 million. Because of its considerable distance from Hong Kong, hilly terrain and poor transport links, it was largely untouched by industrialisation until recent years. But new roads have since shortened the travelling distance from Guangzhou to about one hour.

The area's hot springs, scenic lakes and fast-flowing rivers have made it a popular holiday destination for city dwellers to the south.

In courting industrialists, Qingyuan leaders have vowed to protect the area's tourism resources and maintain its name as 'Guangzhou's back garden'. They proudly cite examples of rejecting investment projects that failed to meet environmental-impact standards.

Huizhou, to the east of Shenzhen, is a historic city whose jurisdiction in ancient days used to cover a big swathe of southern China. Today, it oversees a land area of 11,200 sq km, with a population of 3.71 million.

When he was the local magistrate, renowned Song dynasty poet Su Dongbo built bridges and dykes on a lake in the centre of Huizhou city, modelling it after the famed West Lake in Hangzhou . Today, local residents are proud of Little West Lake as a tourist destination.

The city has had a chequered history in industrialisation. In the 1990s, an ambitious car production joint venture was halted by the central government. Many Hong Kong people had their fingers burned when developers failed to build flats they had paid for.

Despite those setbacks, Huizhou is now proud of being the headquarters of TCL Corp, one of world's biggest telephone-handset manufacturers, and of a petrochemical joint venture between China National Offshore Oil Corp and Shell at Aotou port.

Leaders of Qingyuan and Huizhou brag about their advantages in coming late to development, stressing that they would not repeat the mistakes of Shenzhen and Dongguan. Qingyuan's environmental indicators are among the best in Guangdong, and Huizhou won a national award for environmental protection last year.

That does not mean the two cities are immune to the foul air that permeates the whole region. Compared with Guangzhou and Dongguan, one can certainly breathe easier in Qingyuan and Huizhou, but their skies are only marginally clearer. It is encouraging to see mainland officials realising that a clean environment can be a good selling point for attracting investment. But it is impossible to pin them down on when blue skies and clean air will return.

The Guangdong environmental protection bureau hands out press information describing how much the pollution problem has been reduced. There is no information, however, on how bad the situation remains. But one only needs to take a deep breath and look up to the sky to realise that things remain pretty bad.

C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy