At times Qu Geping has been a lonely man battling some of the most powerful figures in China in his fight to stem the tide of pollution. 'It is tough-going,' he confessed. 'For a long time the word 'environment' did not exist in our vocabulary.' China has six of the 10 most polluted cities in the world. Air pollution in the biggest cities is regularly four or five times World Health Standards. Major cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing have spent almost nothing on treatment of sewage or water purification. And the country's most famous rivers - including the Yangtze and Yellow River - are completely polluted. Such has been the environmental mismanagement that the Yellow River barely exists for half the year - its bed is dry for 800 kilometres, and, this week, scientists warned that could also be the fate of the Yangtze. The Chinese Government is promising to turn the corner within the next five years. It will spend US$54 billion (about HK$418 billion) over the next three years. By the turn of the century all industries will be forced to meet at least Chinese discharge standards. China hopes to raise vast sums abroad to pay for a grand clean-up, as well as investing 180 billion yuan (about HK$192 billion) of its own. 'With Zhu Rongji in charge, I am now quite optimistic. For the first time environmental protection is listed as one of the government's top priorities,' Mr Qu said. He began working on the environment under premier Zhou Enlai in the 1970s when no one, he complained, understood the necessity of protecting the ecology. Now starting a second term as chairman of the National People's Congress Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Committee, Mr Qu has seen environmental protection laws passed but watched helplessly as cities and industries ignored them. Mr Qu claimed Mr Zhu took the environment seriously when he ran Shanghai and started trying to clean up the notoriously evil-smelling Suzhou Creek and the Huangpu River. As Premier, one of his first acts has been to upgrade the low-status National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) to a ministry-level organisation. Under Mr Zhu's new government, many cities have pledged to boost spending on environmental protection. The clean-up forms part of a master plan by Mr Zhu to boost flagging economic growth by increasing spending on basic infrastructure. Shanghai, for instance, is being forced to build a six billion yuan waste water treatment plant after NEPA found the sewage flushed out of the city was polluting the Zhoushan fishing grounds at sea. Western companies are angling for new projects. Until now, China has only bought Western technology if the cost was borne by aid donors or international institutions like the World Bank. Mr Qu admits government control over foreign exchange spending has stopped enterprises from importing equipment so far, but thinks it is time for Western companies to set up joint ventures in China. A few trials to run water treatment facilities as BOT (build-operate-transfer) projects have been tried, but water usage rates are too low. 'One reason why there are not enough water treatment plants is that those in operation keep losing money,' he said. The government is going to raise the price of tap water to make consumers cover the cost of sewage treatment. Costs will go up from 0.5 yuan a tonne to 0.8 yuan. Polluting factories will also be forced to pay much heavier emission taxes. 'Factories must feel it is cheaper to clean up their emissions,' Mr Qu said. 'We must adopt advanced technologies and use the market to make factories control pollution.' And provincial leaders will now be forced to clamp down on violators. 'Few people voluntarily spend money on the environment. And local leaders never supported environmental protection work and stood by violators. But now provincial leaders do pay attention,' Mr Qu claimed. 'For the first time environmental protection is one of the criteria for assessing the performance of cadres. You may do well in developing the economy but you won't be promoted if you do a poor job in pollution control.' To step up the pressure, the government is also expanding the role of the press as a watchdog and encouraging environmental non-governmental organisations. 'Some are highly active. I know two women who are back respectively from the United States and Germany. They do spectacular work, mobilise the masses, raise funds on TV,' he enthused. The press has had an impact after journalists were sent around the country to file reports praising model enterprises and pinpointing bad ones. After the poor state of the Yellow River was exposed, Mr Qu claimed the State Council held an emergency meeting and decided it had to be cleaned up before 2000. 'We hope this only marks the beginning of such media supervision,' he said. The environmental movement already has a few major successes behind it. The biggest so far is the clean-up of the Huai River, which has cost some 5.5 billion yuan already. 'Last year I led an inspection tour myself and saw how 1,000 highly polluting factories have been shut. The locals cut off electricity and water supplies and even demolished whole buildings,' Mr Qu said. Even though this is a poverty-stricken region and the factories were the biggest contributors to local government coffers, the officials stuck to a deadline of December 31, 1997. 'This is one of the great success stories,' he said. Shandong province is employing more than 100,000 labourers to clean up the Xiaoqing River, and the final cost is expected to top eight billion yuan. The Huai River model is also expected to be applied to cleaning up the horribly dirty Tai Hu and Dianchi lakes in central China in the next three years. The government has begun announcing tough new measures to tackle the worsening air pollution in major cities, partly caused by the fast increase in car ownership. New tests on vehicle emissions have started, and an edict has been issued to force all new cars to install catalytic converters within three years. This follows laws banning leaded petrol. 'An underground may be the solution. Many Chinese cities are rushing to build one, but it takes too long. Owning a car used to be out of reach for most Chinese, but now manufacturers are racing to cut prices,' Mr Qu said. 'Even peasants are buying more motor cars.' Thanks partly to Mr Qu's efforts, all major Chinese cities this year began publishing air pollution indices on a weekly basis. It raises environmental consciousness and is a way of putting public pressure on polluters. Mr Qu's toughest and most dangerous battle has been with the Beijing Party and the city's industrial behemoth, the Capital Iron and Steel Works. Under disgraced party secretary Chen Xitong, the steel works quickly expanded to become the biggest producer in the country. As the mayor who crushed the Tiananmen student demonstrations, no one would oppose him. 'No one dared criticise the factory. We were the first,' Mr Qu said. 'We organised a tour of the factory in 1966, the first, and severely criticised it. We told them clearly: no pollution control, no expansion.' As Chen has been under arrest for two years awaiting trial, Mr Qu can now speak out. 'Chen must be held responsible. He took the wrong measures to develop Beijing and never bothered with pollution,' Mr Qu said. The capital concentrated on developing heavy industry and spent nothing on improving the environment. 'He put a lot of money which should have been used on pollution control to other purposes like building hotels and factories. He did whatever he liked - no one could stop him.' The fall of the leaders of the steel works in the same year has enabled Mr Qu to force the giant plant to start a programme to invest in pollution control. For the first time, too, the Beijing Government will step up spending from about 1.9 per cent of its GDP to a level approaching other cities. But it will take more than a decade before most of its waste water is treated and its high air pollution levels can be expected to fall.