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Taking a breath of fresh air

By Zheng Jinran in Beijing, Tian Xuefei in Harbin and Li Yingqing in Kunming | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-01-08 15:00

Vigorous enforcement effort behind the scenes is tackling pollution by taking aim at regional officials

Residents in Beijing have already experienced hazardous smog in the early days of the new year, while at least 60 cities in the northern region have adopted joint emergency measures to reduce emissions, including the short-term shutdown of some factory operations.

But there's another effort going on behind the scenes that's making a big difference. The central government has sharpened its supervision of policymakers across the country through high-level environmental inspections, which have grown into a powerful enforcement tool.

Since the central inspectors made their debut with a monthlong inspection in Hebei province in January 2016, they have been busy expanding the effort to 16 provincial-level areas. The latest inspections were completed on Dec 30, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Taking a breath of fresh air

Through the end of last year, polluters have been fined more than 441 million yuan ($63 million; 60.7 million euros; 51.7 million), and 597 people who were accused of polluting the environment were detained, according to the ministry.

Enforcement is no longer focused solely on polluting companies. The center of the storm against polluters has shifted from companies to governments - "highlighting the major role of policymakers in environmental issues", says Chen Jining, minister of environmental protection.

In the inspection undertaken in mid-July, more than 40,000 people at both the central and local levels have participated in monthlong inspections, which have covered Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Henan and Yunnan provinces, and the Ningxia Hui, Inner Mongolia and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous regions.

Since late November, the inspection teams have visited seven provincial-level areas - Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, as well as Hubei, Guangdong, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.

Chen says that within two years, the inspections will have covered all provincial regions.


The State Council, China's cabinet, sent inspection teams in January, mid-July and late November - a large-scale "accountability storm" aimed at the governments.

China has introduced laws and regulations stipulating that key leaders should play a major role in environmental protection, but the implementation of such measures has not been stellar.

Similar to the inspections ordered by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to check for cases of official corruption, the high-level inspectors are looking for environmental lapses and offenses.

The inspectors hold talks with leading officials, conduct field investigations, receive reports from the public via phone and mail, and review official documents.

The teams review the governments' performance at the provincial and local levels to see if they have met set standards or neglected their duties in relation to pollution control, and will investigate major issues frequently reported by the public.

In the 16 inspected regions so far, including industrialized and developing regions, the teams have exposed long-existing problems in governmental management of environmental issues, and have not withheld details, which illustrates the central government's determination, experts say.

For example, Zhengzhou, Henan province, failed to meet its air pollution reduction goal in 2015, while the annual assessment for the city was labeled good, which means the city government did not realize the importance of environmental protection, according to Wang Wanbin, head of the central inspection team for Henan province.

Similar neglect and weak implementation of environmental protection measures was exposed in other provinces, which is one of the priorities among the inspection teams' tasks.

For example, since the Yunnan provincial government released its Regulation on Fuxian Lake Protection in 2007, many illegal buildings - including hotels, apartments and villas with total floor area of 140,000 square meters - have been built inside the protection zone and are still for sale.

Yang Chunming, deputy head of the Yunnan provincial Environmental Protection Bureau, says the province initiated special teams to correct the problems immediately after receiving the inspection report.

"We have conducted serious investigations on the illegal construction at Fuxian Lake," he says, adding that other exposed problems will be treated seriously. The inspections provide "a chance for us to improve our environmental protection", he says.

Zhang Benxing, a 73-year-old resident of Xiangshan district in Guilin city, in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, says some of the villagers reported illegal quarrying, which created heavy dust around the nationally known scenic area on the Lijiang River.

After that, 37 officials at the county and city level were found to have been responsible.

The reports revealed issues commonly found in the 16 inspected regions, including insufficient attention by leadership to environmental protection, lax implementation of pollution-control measures and improper exploitation of resources in natural reserves.

Some areas have experienced environmental degradation, with air, water and soil quality suffering, the reports said.

After the inspections, around 6,400 government officials were held accountable, with punishments including suspensions, public criticism and lost promotions, the ministry said.

"From the problems exposed by the inspectors, we can see they play hardball in monitoring the governments, and that has helped the policymakers do better with the environment rather than just promoting economic growth," says Qin Tianbao, professor of environmental law at Wuhan University in Hubei province.

He says the governments have behaved better after the inspections, especially after witnessing or receiving punishments.

But after the intense monthlong inspections, the mechanism needs to become a long-term system, he says. "It's better if there are laws to back up such inspections."

The central inspections have been conducted in accordance with a trial regulation from the State Council.

Some governments have set up their own inspection and investigation systems to more effectively control pollution - Henan province and Inner Mongolia, for example.

Chang Jiwen, deputy director of the Institute for Resources and Environment Policies at the State Council Development Research Center, a high-level think tank, agrees that progress has been made with the large number of cases exposed. But he suggests the central inspection teams should focus more on provincial and city governments.

"The leading policymakers in the province have more influence over the environment than environmental officials at the grassroots," he says.

Strict controls

Along with the monitoring of officials, the inspectors have focused attention on pollution problems at companies, after receiving reports from the public by phone or mail.

Subsequent inspections exposed and transferred more than 26,000 cases to related governments. More than 20,000 polluting companies were required to cease polluting and were given huge fines.

"The strict investigations have promoted solutions to many long-existing thorny problems," Chang says.

A pharmaceutical factory located in Hulunbuir, in Inner Mongolia, was reported 80 times during the inspection month because of the bad odor it emitted.

"The plant has been punished administratively 29 times by the environmental bureaus at the city and regional levels, but the plant continued in production and generating the odor," according to a statement from the region.

After the inspection, the governments conducted thorough investigations and detained two people accused of pollution. The plant subsequently suspended production, the statement said.

For some polluters, administrative punishments from the environmental authorities are not a strong deterrent, and the central inspectors have helped the governments put a tighter leash on them. Tighter control has brought pollution in some regions under control, Chang says.

But it's better that the governments adopt legal weapons against the pollution instead of the relying on the short-term inspection, like fully implementing the revised Environmental Protection Law, he says.

Zhang Xiaode, director of the Ecological Civilization Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Governance, says the central inspections have demonstrated the government's determination to improve the environment, and the effort has proved to be effective. It has also sent a signal to society that the environment is related to social and economic growth, he says, adding that it has also helped governments identify issues and find effective solutions.


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