Most city governments on the mainland withheld vital information on pollution from the public last year, with many scaling back their disclosure to protect polluters as economic growth slowed, two major environmental organisations said in a study released in Beijing yesterday.
The 10 most secretive cities were Zaozhuang in Shandong , Datong and Yangquan in Shanxi, Xiangyang in Hubei , Karamay in Xinjiang, Changchun and Jilin city in Jilin, Zhangjiajie in Hunan , Jinzhou in Liaoning and Ordos in Inner Mongolia. They disclosed barely any environmental information, such as the amounts of pollutants discharged or the identities of major polluters.
Datong and Yangquan are among China's largest coal and power production centres and were responsible for much of the smog that shrouded many parts of northern China in recent months. Jilin, Changchun and Jinzhou, in the northeast, are centres of heavy industry.
The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing and the Natural Resources Defence Council in the United States have been monitoring the environmental transparency of 113 major mainland cities since 2009, releasing an annual pollution information transparency index.
The researchers said they had grown used to the persistent lack of transparency in mining and industrial centres over the years, but had been surprised this time by the large number of cities that took big steps backwards.
Forty cities scaled back their information disclosure last year, with Wuhu in Anhui, Foshan and Shantou in Guangdong, Baoding in Hebei, Taizhou in Zhejiang, Changzhou in Jiangsu , Anshan and Dalian in Liaoning, Weifang in Shandong and Yinchuan in Ningxia the most regressive. Wuhu's index score was only 34.6 last year, down from a respectable 57.1 in 2011.
Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs director Ma Jun said it was an alarming development.
"This is totally new to us," he said. "We have never seen so many cities, about 35 per cent of the total, stepping backwards.
"They have significantly slowed down after promising progress on transparency in recent years."
A key reason for the increase in secrecy was local protectionism, the report said, with some city governments choosing to sacrifice the environment in their blind pursuit of economic growth.
Apart from a few exceptions, such as Ningbo in Zhejiang, Dongguan and Shenzhen in Guangdong and Qingdao in Shandong, most mainland cities refused to disclose some of the most important and basic information about pollution and polluters, such as pollutant discharge data and records of administrative punishments handed out to polluters, the report said.
More than 20 mainland environmental organisations issued a joint statement yesterday calling on city governments to disclose their pollution information immediately, completely and consistently.