For Wen, it's too little, too late
Premier Wen Jiabao's latest commitment to protect the environment, made during the annual session of the National People's Congress that ended last week, has met with little fanfare.
Although it is rare for mainland leaders to vow not to sacrifice the environment and public health on the altar of economic prosperity, few of the mainland media bothered to highlight such lofty words and they did not even cause a stir among his usual supporters in the mainland's vibrant blogosphere.
Obviously, few people take such words seriously given the grim reality of the country's pollution woes and the fact that Wen is about to retire in less than a year.
Critics have accused Wen of paying mere lip service to the problem, with data indicating worsening environmental degradation despite his pledges and the premier failing to say how he can deliver on them in his last year in office.
They say it is just another example of political grandstanding by Wen, aimed at putting a positive spin on his rather gloomy environmental legacy before his 10 years in office end next March.
Indeed, such a belated empty pledge seems too little and too late to check the rapid environmental degradation, that has been a key by-product of the country's runaway economic rise, and to undo all the damage that has been done on his watch - including the palpable human toll.
Despite his populist image and frequent emotional appeals about the need to rebuild social justice and stamp out corruption and other social ills, Wen appears to suffer from the same weakness that plagues most mainland politicians - a lack of courage to face the truth and follow through on his own promises. For the first time in the six years since his administration rolled out mandatory targets on cutting energy waste and curbing pollution emissions in 2006, Wen did not report results to NPC deputies in his annual work report this month.
The reason is simple and obvious. His administration failed to meet three out of seven mandatory energy and environmental targets, including carbon intensity, a widely watched key indicator of the mainland's contribution to the global effort to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
Disappointed environmentalists and media commentators call it a vivid example of Wen's tangled, largely self-inflicted predicament in delivering on another commitment - embracing greater government openness.
When the State Council promulgated the mainland's first regulation on official information disclosure in 2008, Wen enjoyed applause and praise from the public and the international media for his courage in taking on the prevailing culture of government secrecy.
But nearly four years later, there has been little progress, with local authorities tightening control of information and mainlanders kept in the dark about key government decisions.
Although his supporters may argue that Wen has been advocating the importance of tackling pollution-induced public health hazards since he took office in 2003, there is no denying that the mainland's pollution woes have worsened on his watch.
This is especially the case during his second term as premier, beginning in 2008, which has been haunted by the effects of the central government's 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.91 trillion) stimulus package.
While the stimulus helped maintain the mainland's robust growth and defied a global recession, it turned out to be disastrous for the environment, the biggest victim of Beijing's stunning about-face as it re-embraced energy-intensive and heavily polluting industries.
The fallout of the stimulus package can still be felt today, Wen has admitted.
The need to rein in the reckless expansion of industries that consume a lot of energy and release high levels of pollution - blamed for the missed energy and conservation targets - was repeated at least three times in Wen's 18,000-word annual address.
But the key question remains unanswered - how can it be achieved?
Analysts have warned that Beijing's short-sighted stimulus policy may have a lasting impact on the environment because it will take the government many years to regain control over the resulting irrational increase in energy consumption, especially in the soaring use of dirty coal.
Environmentalists say that while Wen is likely to be remembered as a populist premier who has loved talking about putting people's interests first, there is little, if anything, that he can boast of regarding his environmental legacy.
His administration may have rolled out quite a few well-intended policies in the past 10 years, but the reality of their lacklustre implementation and an avalanche of environmental woes have alienated even his staunchest supporters.
To be fair, Wen should be given credit for elevating the country's top environmental watchdog into a relatively more powerful full environment ministry and other small, instrumental steps, such as the recent revision of air pollution standards that now encompass tiny, health-threatening airborne particles known as PM2.5.
Experts also acknowledge that it was the first time that environmental standards, usually authorised by the environment ministry, were deliberated and approved by the State Council, following a national outcry over the government's prolonged secrecy over urban air pollution problems.
But the premier appears to have great difficulty confronting his own environmental failures and facing the bleak truth about widespread pollution.
Water pollution control is a case in point.
Despite the goal of tackling pollution of the country's major rivers and lakes being mentioned by Wen almost every year in his work report to the NPC, water pollution woes have gone from bad to worse.
A government survey published last year included a rare acknowledgement of the appalling human cost of water pollution.
It said that 'cancer villages' had emerged in Henan, Anhui, Sichuan, Guangdong, Heilongjiang and Shandong due to heavy metal pollution of water.
In a rough estimate, it said direct economic losses from water pollution totalled billons of yuan a year.
Preliminary findings of research sanctioned by the health ministry two years ago have confirmed a direct correlation between unusually high cancer rates in pollution-plagued villages and widespread water contamination.
In one 'cancer village' in Wuxi, near Lake Tai, that I visited three years ago, residents beset by pollution and health fears viewed Wen as their saviour.
'Can you let Premier Wen know about our miseries? He is our last hope and he is the only one who is capable of solving our problems once he is told of our suffering,' the villagers said.
In fact, Wen has visited the lake almost every year since 2006, when massive algal outbreaks choked off the source of fresh water for millions of people in Wuxi and other nearby cities in Jiangsu, one of the country's most affluent provinces. He even publicly apologised for the pollution, grabbing international media headlines.
However, despite spending billions of yuan each year, the clean-up effort has yet to see much in the way of results, with algal blooms continuing to haunt one of the country's biggest lakes on a regular basis.
As many analysts have pointed out, the truth about degradation and environmental pollution problems on the mainland may have become too bleak and brutal, for any official, including Wen, to outrightly confess. But it is also too important to ignore.
Mr Premier, you have to take your fair share of blame for the worsening environmental degradation across the country - and you owe the Chinese public an apology.
The amount, in yuan, spent over six years to tackle pollution on the Huai, Hai and Liao rivers, and Tai, Chao and Dianchi lakes - with little effect