Laws should be strictly enforced to better protect the environment
Editor's Note: Thanks to years of efforts, China has made some remarkable achievements in the field of environmental protection. But can it overcome the remaining challenges? In the sixth of a series of commentaries, a senior journalist of China Daily tries to find the answer:
Governments at different levels in China have worked out mid-term and long-term plans for environmental protection, and increased investment in the environment sector. The only challenge in implementing such plans, it seems, is officials' malfeasance and corruption.
Beijing's air pollution has long been a headache despite the local government taking strict environmental protection measures including relocating highly polluting industries out of the city, banning coal burning and limiting the number of vehicles on the street.
Data show that only a small percentage of Beijing's pollution comes from local sources while neighboring provinces contribute the rest. For instance, Hebei province has the largest iron-and-steel production capacity in the world, and boasts of huge cement and glass factories, and giant thermal power plants. No wonder, of the top 10 most-polluted Chinese cities, more than half are in Hebei. And according to a 2017 investigation, about 62,000 enterprises in Hebei were emitting excessive greenhouse gases, of which half were ordered to shut down and the rest to reduce their emissions.
Media investigations, however, revealed that many of the enterprises ordered to shut down were still operating while those told to reduce emissions had done nothing to do so. Only when supervision was strengthened before big occasions such as the National Day Parade or some international meetings, Beijing used to see blue skies, which the city's residents humorously called the "Big Event Blue". But, unfortunately, after such events concluded, polluting enterprises used to be back in operation.
Which means Beijing residents enjoyed blue skies only when local officials strictly implemented environmental protection laws. What stopped them from taking tough measures during "normal" times was the handsome taxes and fees paid to the local government by the polluting industries which not only boosted the local GDP but also created thousands of jobs.
Malfeasance is often accompanied, or followed, by corruption. Last year, a corruption case related to environmental protection attracted widespread public attention. Along the northern slope of the Qinling Mountains that largely divides the country into north and south, about 1,200 villas were built inside the Qinling National Forest Park, which is protected by national environmental laws.
The violation was reported to the central authority as early as 2014, and the central leadership issued instructions to Shaanxi province six times to conduct thorough investigations before reporting the result to the central government. The leaders of the province as well as Xi'an, the provincial capital, and relevant districts said only 202 villas along the Qinling Mountains were yet to be dismantled.
Not until the central government sent a discipline and supervision team to Xi'an in 2018 to investigate the case did the real picture become clear: 1,194 villas stood in the national forest park with about half being built after the central leadership ordered the investigation. As a result, more than 100 officials were warned, disciplined, removed, fired or arrested including the top leaders of Shaanxi province and Xi'an city.
On the other hand, the environment of Qilian Mountain between Gansu and Qinghai provinces is being damaged by unscrupulous companies exploiting its rich mineral reserves. A few years ago, many enterprises in the Qilian Mountain area in Gansu were found to be illegally operating mines and discharging chemical pollutants in the area. As a result, dozens of officials who turned a blind eye to the violations and earned benefits from the projects were punished.
A report in August said that, in the name of "restoring the environment" in the Qilian Mountain area, many enterprises were carrying out illegal mining, seriously damaging the environment. Many lower-level officials have been punished according to Party discipline and the country's laws. The case is still under investigation, though there is reason to believe that illegal mining was made possible because of some officials' help.
Therefore, the central and local governments should revise their appraisal criteria for officials by including environmental and ecological protection in their performance criteria for salary increment and promotion. The central and local governments should also handle environment-related corruption cases more strictly, because corruption will make life hazardous for not only our generation, but also the next generation and the generations after next.
The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.