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Courage needed for a country fit to live in

Updated: 2014-02-28 07:23
By Chen Weihua ( China Daily)

The persistent choking smog that shrouded Beijing and the nearby area for the past week made headlines around the world. The smog, with the PM2.5 reading going above 500, was so bad that it prompted the World Health Organization to declare a health crisis. "Nuclear winter", "uninhabitable" and "life expectancy cut by five years" were just some of the dreadful words filling the media reports.

It should not come as a surprise that the nation's capital suffers such heavy smog, as it is surrounded by some of the country's most polluted cities, mostly in Hebei province. Even in Shanghai, East China, the PM2.5 reading stayed around 170, three times higher than the healthy level recommended by the WHO.

The question people in China are asking is how long they will have to breathe such noxious air.

Scholars declared that China was facing an environmental crisis as early as the late 1980s, but their warnings were clearly not heeded. For example, we have seen officials being removed and arrested for corruption and sex scandals, but none have lost their jobs or been punished for allowing their cities to become some of the most polluted in the world.

So far, which companies had to declare bankruptcy due to the heavy penalties imposed for the serious pollution they caused? How many business owners were put behind bars for the damage they inflicted on the environment?

The laws may have been there for years or decades, yet they are not strictly enforced, or not enforced at all. In fact, such lax enforcement has invited more rampant violations in the past decades.

Yet if smog cuts a person's life span by five years, then the polluting factories have taken the lives of at least thousands of people, a crime punishable by death, given the death penalty still exists in China.

In the United States, there are some who ask if the US Environmental Protection Agency is too powerful. In China, the question might be whether the Ministry of Environmental Protection has any power at all, given that so many factories continue to defy regulations and pollute the air, rivers and soil.

The ministry was upgraded in the central government hierarchy in 2008 on the basis of National Environmental Protection Administration, but the overlapping of responsibilities with other ministries and departments often means there is no accountability to anyone.

The good news is the ministry is likely to be further strengthened by taking over the overlapping responsibilities from the Ministry of Land and Resources, the State Forestry Administration, the Ministry of Water Resources and the State Oceanic Administration.

The Environmental Protection Ministry should indeed become the most powerful ministry in the nation, given the huge environmental challenge the country faces.

The upcoming session of the National People's Congress, the nation's legislature, should address this pressing issue and further improve and strengthen the environmental laws and regulations.

However, a more powerful weapon is raising the awareness of the public and civil society of what they can do to combat the polluters. The growing public pressure on polluters has become especially important when some officials and academics continue to promote the view that pollution and environmental degradation are a necessary step in the country's development, citing the severe smog experienced by some British and US cities more than half a century ago.

But China does not need to repeat the mistakes of others, it needs vision and courage to learn from the experiences of other countries.

Otherwise, the glitzy skylines of our cities will disappear in the smog, and the wealth accumulated by the people and government will be spent on medical bills. That would not be a beautiful country anyone wants to live in.

The author, based in Washington DC, is deputy editor of China Daily USA.