Business / Green China

Smog becoming key test for Chinese officials

(Xinhua) Updated: 2014-02-27 08:49

BEIJING - Smog has blanketed the Chinese capital for at least a week and the Great Hall of the People, where lawmakers will meet next week for the country's parliamentary session, is hardly visible.

Much of north and central China, or one-seventh of the country, was covered in the pall over the weekend.

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Responses have included reduced industrial activities, a ban on fireworks and barbecues, raised pollution alerts and vehicles being pulled from the roads.

Citizens are advised to stay indoors while schools have either stopped classes or suspended outdoor activities.

But the real battleground in the smog war is arguably still on the horizon, with air pollution sure to be high on the agenda of next week's parliamentary meetings. Lawmakers around the country have already proposed legally binding targets to curb pollution.

And Chinese officials, after a long period of prioritizing economic development over environmental protection, are now likely to see their future career shaped by how effectively they combat the rampant pollution.

Before gathering in the capital next week, local legislators and political advisors have announced goals to clear air pollution. At least 15 provinces have signed deals that promise "marked improvement" in air quality in five years.

Among them, Beijing plans to throw 760 billion yuan (124 billion U.S. dollars) into these efforts. Its neighboring province of Hebei vowed to depose any official that allows more steel or cement production than a mandated quota. Shanghai has also proposed better coordination with provinces on the Yangtze Delta in work to reduce emissions. FEELING THE PRESSURE

Wang Anshun, the mayor of Beijing, told media half-jokingly on the sidelines of Beijing's legislature meeting in January that leaders at the State Council will want his "head off his chest" if he fails to improve the capital's air quality by 2017.

While this could be a jest, the pressure Chinese officials carry on their shoulder is no laughing matter.

Tackling air pollution is the most urgent task for officials. It has become a key criteria for how they are judged, and the absence of progress over time could spell the end of their career.

Such concern keeps officials in Beijing on the edge of their seat. While the annual two sessions could likely begin under the choking smog, they will have little more than six months to prepare for a summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in the fall. Hosting leaders around the Pacific rim under smothering conditions is the last thing they want on their record.

The smog hanging over Beijing will not clear unless its neighbors take concrete steps to reduce emissions. This has already exacted an economic toll on Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing and produces a quarter of China's steel.

The capacity these steel mills added over the years has also spewed more particles into the northern Chinese sky. China Environmental News, a newspaper affiliated with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, reported in January that Hebei's goal to slash production of both coal and steel by 1.5 million tonnes this year could see the province lose 3 percent of its economic output.

"Steel, cement, glass, any extra ton of these products added in Hebei will put an end to an official's tenure," said Hebei Governor Zhang Qingwei in a recent interview. PUBLIC MISTRUST

Yet these ambitious targets and vows have failed to assuage a public long frustrated with recurring smog.

If there is any consolation, it is that officials suffer just as much as the average Joe under from the cloying air.

Jack Ma, founder of leading Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba, weighed into the discussion over the weekend, saying, "The smog has made me happier than ever, because those that enjoy privilege over water and food now have to breathe the same air. And when they go home, they face the criticism of their wife and children."

Knowing the air pollution has taken an economic and social toll, the central leadership has expressed intent to build a mechanism that will hold officials accountable for life for the reckless pursuit of economic gains at the expense of the environment.

A document issued by the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee late last year vowed to bring sweeping changes in the assessment of officials.

It laid out a plan to add environmental and social aspects to officials' assessment. It also put a greater emphasis on balanced and sustainable economic development in the hope of making officials think twice before embarking on projects that may devastate the local environment or rack up piles of debt.

"Even as a foreigner, I know the pollution has a lot to do with an overriding focus on economic indicators in evaluating Chinese officials," said Florian Kessler, an executive director with German law firm WZR Consulting.

The German executive speaks fluent Chinese, loves Beijing food and is a big fan of Beijing Guo'an Football Club, but after staying in the city for eight years, he now wants to leave.

"Since I smoke, I'm okay with the pollution, but I can't let my kid inhale the polluted air. That's why I'm leaving," Kessler explained.

He also said that German companies operating in Beijing, such as BMW, Benz and Volkswagen, have all had a hard time finding staff willing to work here. FABRICATION DANGER

Chai Fahe, deputy head of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, said while making pollution a key factor in assessment could make a difference, it could also force local officials to fabricate data to pass checks and cover up the real scale of the problem.

This is a concern because monitoring agencies are usually affiliated with the government and could face pressure from authorities to understate pollution.

The Chinese public have long been skeptical of environmental data published by state authorities and refer to independent monitoring groups for information many perceive as more reliable.

Chai said that, given the credibility issue, the government should have an open mind about using independent environmental monitors to prevent fraud.

China has made repeated pledges in the past that it would not follow the old path of industrialized nations to develop first and deal with pollution afterward.

But the lingering smog is an awkward reminder that the country is already on that path. Whether they can change route depends on the choice Chinese officials make between environment and growth in the years ahead.

Smog becoming key test for Chinese officials

Smog becoming key test for Chinese officials

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