Central government must prove 'war on smog' not just hot air

While premier's declaration is a positive sign, policies and deep-rooted political mindsets must be changed to truly make progress

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 3:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 3:26am

There was a perverse sense of irony on Wednesday when Premier Li Keqiang announced China would "declare war" on pollution while Beijing, along with much of the country, was enjoying a rare, cloudless day with crisp air.

In his first government work report, Li vowed to fight pollution with the same zeal and determination China has employed to eradicate poverty, unveiling detailed measures that include closing 15,000 small coal-fired furnaces and taking six million ageing, high-emission vehicles off the streets this year.

As much as Li's vow raised hopes among the country's hundreds of millions of long-suffering residents who breathe hazardous air most days of the year, it also elicited widespread cynicism that the government was merely paying lip service as it continued to set a relatively high economic growth rate - which many blame for the pollution in the first place - of about 7.5 per cent this year.

To illustrate the sheer scale of challenges ahead, a senior environmental official revealed on Friday that only three of 74 key mainland cities met national air quality standards last year.

However, there are good reasons to believe the mainland leadership is more serious this time.

First of all, Li's pledge has for the first time reflected a sense of urgency at the mainland leadership's highest level, as the nation's grinding pollution is not merely an environmental issue but, more importantly, a hot-button political, economic and social one.

In particular, the decision to place the importance of curbing pollution on par with poverty eradication has strategic implications, given China's record of providing vastly better standards of living to hundreds of millions of its people over the past 30 years.

Some senior Chinese officials have indicated that lower economic growth could be tolerated if it means curbing hazardous pollution, as a key part of efforts to upgrade and rebalance the economy.

Finance Minister Lou Jiwei said last week that despite setting the 7.5 per cent target, a growth rate of 7.3 or 7.2 per cent could still be counted within that range.

More importantly, the new leadership has had only tentative success in curbing local authorities' enthusiasm to boost spending. Hao Peng , governor of impoverished Qinghai province, said last week that when the provincial economy started to slow early last year, he and other officials were glued to the TV every Wednesday when the State Council held its regular weekly meeting to discuss and decide economic matters. They wanted to detect any signal of a shift in economic policy, hoping the central government would allow "stimulus measures" to boost the economy - but none materialised.

Now, as the national economy shows signs of slowing, resisting further lobbying from local officials for more stimulus funds will remain one of the biggest challenges for the central government's efforts to curb pollution.

Another key challenge is how to change the mindset of local officials, cemented over three decades, of pursuing high economic growth above all else. This will not be easy, as upgrading and rebalancing the economy is a long, difficult process and economic growth is still a key factor in evaluating local officials' performance and career prospects.

Even if officials are to be evaluated by their efforts to curb pollution in the future, they still need to walk a fine line to maintain a certain level of growth to create enough jobs to ensure stability. Nationwide, analysts generally agree that China needs to maintain at least 7 per cent growth to create 10 million jobs for its university graduates and others.

To illustrate the scale of difference between the central government and local authorities, revisions to the Environmental Protection Law that aim to raise penalties for polluters are still bogged down in the National People's Congress (NPC) even after its third reading, the stage at which less controversial laws are usually promulgated.

Even if the revised law is passed soon, it will be difficult to implement unless China's weak environmental regulatory framework is overhauled.

Currently, the Ministry of Environmental Protection is grossly understaffed and lacks real power. Some deputies to the current session of the NPC have suggested that the central government allocate more resources and power to give the ministry real teeth. But that will not help greatly as long as the provinces and rival ministries with the same administrative rank as the environment ministry can ignore directives from above with impunity.

To change this, the mainland leadership must back up its rhetoric with the formation of a national leading group headed by President Xi Jinping and the premier to co-ordinate and execute a national strategy, with real power and resources - just like the recently formed leading groups on economic restructuring, national security and internet security.