WITH air quality deteriorating in major cities, China is to have an atmospheric pollution law in the first half of next year, a mainland environment official said yesterday. Under the new legislation, violators would be warned, fined or subject to criminal charges depending on the seriousness of the offence, said Qu Geping, chairman of the Environmental and Resources Protection Committee of the National People's Congress. Mr Qu, who is in Hong Kong attending the six-day World Environment Congress, did not give the exact maximum sentences the draft bill stipulated. He did say 14 people convicted for poaching pandas had been given death sentences and three had been executed. China has enacted dozens of environmental protection laws in the past 20 years, but even Chinese officials have admitted that they are ineffective as they do not stipulate penalties for offenders. Mr Qu said the death sentence for the 14 panda poachers was the most serious punishment under environmental protection laws. And under the new air protection law, 'the highest punishment for companies would be their closing down, while individuals would be penalised according to China's criminal code', he said. Mr Qu admitted pollution remained a serious problem despite the promulgation of laws. Rapid economic growth, a large amount of pollution problems let go unchecked in past decades, low investment on environmental protection projects, a heavy-industry-oriented industrial structure, and a lack of city planning were all to blame for China's deteriorating environment, he said. 'China has been able to maintain an 11 percentage point economic growth rate for more than 10 years. And environmental protection facilities lag behind such a fast development,' the environment official said. He said that when central planning was still the order of the day, it was 'very difficult' to punish violators of environmental protection laws since the bosses of enterprises were themselves government officials. '[Environmental] problems left behind from history are enormous,' Mr Qu said. He said an estimated 150 billion yuan (HK$135 billion) would be needed to build secondary water treatment plants to solve China's sewage problem. At present, China's budget for environmental protection stands at 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product, while economic losses incurred by pollution have been estimated to be as much as 100 billion yuan. Mr Qu said the budget would increase spending to one per cent of the GDP by the year 2000. 'Among developing countries, 0.7 per cent is already the highest although it is far from enough for China,' he said. 'We cannot go any higher than one percentage point when we are still facing the problem of providing food and clothes for our people. 'No country in the world which is at the same development stage as China has made similar effort in tackling environmental problems.' Mr Qu dismissed earlier reports that rampant corruption problems among government officials had jeopardised efforts to solve the problem. 'It's not possible. I have not heard of any such cases. Yes, corruption is a problem in China. But I don't believe that it would be so serious as to have hampered environmental protection efforts.'