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China’s environmental clean-up campaign hasn’t cost jobs or hit economy, minister says

Unemployment rate in major cities at its lowest for several years, official says as he vows to press on with ‘war on pollution’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 11:08pm

China’s efforts to clean up the environment have neither resulted in job losses nor damaged the economy, environment minister Li Ganjie said on Monday, as he resolved to press on with the government’s drive to curb pollution.

“It is impossible to say corporations have not felt a partial impact,” he told a press conference in Beijing on the sidelines of the party congress.

“But if we look from a long-term perspective, there is no impact. Strengthening environmental protection … goes hand in hand with economic development.”

He said that his ministry would continue to send out inspection teams and dismissed claims the clean up campaign was having a detrimental effect on employment figures.

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“The unemployment rate in major cities is at its lowest for several years. If … our measures to step up environmental protection had hurt jobs, I don’t think such a figure would have been available,” Li said.

His comments came as President Xi Jinping – whose thoughts are set to become enshrined in the party’s constitution – said last week that more work needed to be done to create a “beautiful China” by 2050.

The country is in the fourth year of a “war on pollution” designed to reverse the damage caused by decades of unchecked economic growth, such as contaminated soil, polluted water and choking smog, all of which contribute to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year.

Since the end of 2015, Beijing has sent out inspectors to 31 provinces, resulting in the punishment of about 10,000 people for breaches of environmental protection regulations.

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Li said more teams would be dispatched next year and that the government was considering how to make inspections a long-term arrangement.

“We are looking at ways to have central protection inspectors installed within organisations so that inspections can become part of the system,” he said.

In 2013, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued its “Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan”, which set out detailed targets for air quality by 2017. However, Li admitted recently that with the end of the year approaching, the government would struggle to achieve its goals.

In the first eight months of the year, the average air quality in China’s 338 largest cities actually worsened from 2016. According to figures from the environment ministry, just 78.3 per cent of days in the period experienced “clean air”, down from 81.1 per cent a year earlier.

Fighting pollution is as crucial as growth

In a bid to improve air quality in the nation’s capital, almost all construction projects have been halted in the city from November to March.

China’s economy grew by 6.7 per cent in 2016 year and by 6.9 per cent in the first three quarters of this year, but not all regions have performed so well.

Shanxi, the country’s second-largest coal mining province, reported just 3.1 per cent growth in 2015 and 4.5 per cent last year.

In Hebei province, which produces about one tenth of the world’s steel products, environmental inspections and efforts to reduce overcapacity have resulted in the price of rebar, a common construction material, almost doubling in the past 18 months.