China pollution

Environmental experts say China's new leadership has to tackle pollution

New leadership has to declare war on pollution, end power struggles and take on vested interests

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 2:59pm

Lingering smog, dead pigs floating down waterways and rivers turned red and white - the mainland's new leadership was ushered in a month ago amid dreadful scenes in stark contrast to the "blue sky and clear water" pledged in their vision of a beautiful China.

As it faces the country's worst environmental crisis in three decades, will the new government be able to deliver on its promise?

While the past experience of Premier Li Keqiang in overseeing environmental issues and his background in law offer a silver lining, some experts say he has yet to show real political will and courage by declaring war on pollution, end power struggles between central and local authorities, and take on the mighty state-owned enterprises.

As a vice-premier, Li chaired a key national environmental protection working conference late in 2011, at which, for the first time, he spelled out a vision of a habitable environment comprising "blue sky, clear water and uncontaminated soil". He also chaired an annual meeting of the world's top environmental experts, hearing their advice on achieving a green transformation of China.

These experiences - accompanied by unprecedented environmental degradation in recent years - could give Li a better understanding of the country's pollution problems than any of his predecessors had, according to Yang Ailun, a senior associate in the major emerging economies team at the World Resources Institute.

Li is also believed to have been the top leader who supported the release of information on levels of PM2.5 - tiny particles of pollution in the air that are believed to do the most damage to humans.

"Such a background will definitely help, but meanwhile he's also facing a much bigger challenge as the root cause of environmental destruction - vested interests - becomes increasingly complicated," said Yang.

"The two institutional factors at the heart of China's environmental problems - battles between central and local governments, as well as central leadership versus state-owned enterprises - cannot be easily reconciled … the solution lies in Li having a stronger political will," she said.

The mainland's top environmental officials have repeatedly accused local governments of recklessly pursuing economic growth despite the central authorities' attempt to put the brakes on. Earlier mainland media reports also lamented the poor environmental record of some powerful SOEs, such as the big oil companies, as well as their reticence about upgrading to cleaner industrial standards.

Li Bo, a senior adviser to environmental advocacy group Friends of Nature, said such conflicts of interests could not be solved by issuing top-down administrative orders, as the existing implementation and supervision mechanisms had failed to curb the spread of pollution.

Both Li and Yang agreed that empowering the public might lead to a way out. But a worrying sign is that the authorities still do not want to give the public such power, said Li.

Official statistics indicate that, despite mass protests over environmental issues increasing 29 per cent year-on-year since 1996, less than 1 per cent of environmental disputes were settled through judicial channels.

"A recent case where two pollution victims in Hubei province were charged with blackmail after seeking compensation, and the case of Liu Futang , a Hainan environmental activist charged with illegally operating a business, showed that governments still do not want the public to step in over environmental affairs," said Li.

"Hopefully Li's training as a lawyer can bring some change … but it has still not been very promising, until now," said Li.

Ma Jun , the director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the top leadership had yet to make up its mind on whether to change the existing decision-making process - which largely ignores public opinion.

"Opening up the closed door and hearing the public's voice would lead to a substantial slowdown in the decision-making process, and a subsequent slowdown in the pace of economic growth. Only in this way can there be a real transformation, otherwise we're going to be stuck here," said Ma.

According to Ma, the top leaders are facing "the biggest environmental challenge in 30 years".

"Public expectations are high that the new leadership can vigorously respond to their environmental appeals, such as having clean air and water… but the question is whether the top leadership is determined to usher in some changes," he said.

Li Bo is less optimistic, as the new premier has kept in place unpopular environmental minister Zhou Shengxian , who received the lowest number of supporting votes at the National People's Congress last month due to the ministry's inaction in cleaning up the environment. And Li Keqiang's pledge at his first press conference to tackle pollution with "even greater resolve" did not go beyond the old rhetoric that growth should not come at the expense of the environment.

Li Bo warned: "Reckless and sprawling urbanisation can only exacerbate the scarcity of resources - water and energy - already felt by some megacities like Beijing."