China Toughens Stance on Environmental Protection

Times Staff Writer

Turning a blind eye to environmental degradation could now cost Chinese officials their jobs, state media announced Tuesday. However, environmentalists raised concerns about enforcement of the new regulations.

The government announcement comes in the wake of a string of embarrassing pollution incidents that forced Beijing to grapple with the downside of a runaway economy: its effect on the ecosystem and public health.

“By cracking down on corruption and environmental destruction, we are correcting the wrong principle of pursuing fast economic growth by sacrificing environmental quality,” Li Yufu, vice minister of supervision, told the Chinese media.


Local corruption has been a major stumbling block for the central government’s effort to rein in environmental violators.

The new rules say that officials who fail to shut down projects that cause widespread pollution, reduce or cancel fees imposed on those who illegally discharge industrial waste, or cover up environmental accidents will be disciplined. The exact nature of the punishment was unclear. The government said it would range from disciplinary warnings to dismissal.

Environmentalists said the announcement was a good sign that Beijing recognizes the urgency of adopting a more sustainable development policy.

“The Chinese government knows if we continue at this pace of development, the harm to the environment can only be greater,” said Kevin May, toxics campaign manager with Greenpeace China based in the southern city of Guangzhou. “There have always been laws, but very little enforcement. Now we have new laws. How will they be different? That remains to be seen.”

To show that this time it means business, Beijing also last week announced Cabinet-level directives to clean up the country’s damaged environment in the next 15 years. At the top of the agenda is improvement of the nation’s water, air and soil quality. By the government’s own admission, most of China’s rivers are polluted and more than a third of the country is ravaged by acid rain.

“The issue of pollution has become a ‘blasting fuse’ of social instability,” Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA, told the New China News Agency last week, referring to the rising number of public protests over the country’s environmental problems.

Zhou’s predecessor was forced to resign after a chemical spill into the Songhua River in November caused millions of people in northern China to go without drinking water for days. The river flows into Russia, and the accident raised fear there about contamination.

Since fall, SEPA has tried to flex more political muscle and rectify its image as a toothless watchdog without enforcement power. This month the agency demanded that toxic spills be reported within an hour. The Songhua spill was not made public for days, adding to the difficulty of crisis management.

SEPA threatened this month to shut down 11 companies and 10 factories, including riverfront smelters and chemical plants, if they failed to control contaminants.

But the toxic discharges continue. Since the November spill, SEPA has received about 45 reports of pollution accidents, according to state media. Last week, industrial waste from a power plant was flushed into a river in Sichuan province, forcing the shutdown of water supplies to 28,000 residents for at least four days.

To help the agency in its work, the central government plans to link local officials’ performance ratings not just to their ability to promote economic development but also environmental protection.

“China went from the relentless pursuit of class struggle to GDP [gross domestic product] growth; now it’s environmental protection and the so-called green GDP,” said Zhou Xiao- zheng, a sociologist at People’s University in Beijing. “Officials who want to get promoted will follow whatever the new slogan is. Why not? They don’t want to breathe bad air or drink dirty water either.”