China's New Leaders Take Over Toxic Legacy

2013-03-13
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Chinese villagers gather dead pigs in a town in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, March 13, 2013
AFP

China's new leaders will have their hands full grappling with environmental problems as they take the helm this week amid protests over river pollution in the south and reports that cities in the north have the worst air quality in the world.

Incoming president Xi Jinping and premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang are set to formally assume their new titles at the end of annual parliamentary sessions that began this week at a time of of growing public anger over pollution and food safety fears.

Fear and anger exploded into the public eye during the annual parliamentary sessions this week in the form of online reaction to thousands of pig carcasses found in two of the country's rivers that provide drinking water to the public.

Experts also warned this week that air pollution in northern China is the worst in the world, with severe-to-hazardous levels of pollution reported in major cities in the region in recent months.

The Xinjing News on Wednesday quoted experts from the prestigious Beijing University as saying that seven out of the top 10 most polluted cities in the world were in China.

The news led Li Zuojun, deputy head of the State Council's Development Research Center, to comment via social media that the pollution was a result of government policies.

"Apart from natural conditions, the pollution in Tianjin, Inner Mongolia, Tangshan city in Hebei, and other places is due to the fact that those places have the fasted GDP growth of the whole country," Li wrote via his verified Twitter-like account. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) captures the value of goods and services produced.    

"There is also a high concentration of coal burning, steel mills and petrochemical plants, as well as other heavy industry in this region," he added.

His post stirred up further criticism online, with Weibo user @xiaojiurenshengluFrankie commenting: "I remember reading in junior high school textbooks that China wouldn't follow the West by polluting first, and cleaning up later. It's only 15 years later that I realize this meant that we're just going to pollute, and not clean up at all!"

User @tangyushan added: "Those who polluted the air have released a slow poison which will harm everyone; those who are responsible should be pursued, and severely dealt with."

Profit-driven mentality

Beijing resident Liu Tianyi said he believed the pollution was the direct result of a profit-driven mentality.

"I think it's because people changed, and they started to chase only money and material goods, which led to changes in the natural world," Liu said.

"People worship money, and do anything for profit; they will exploit anything, manufacture anything, with no heed for the consequences."

He said further legislation wouldn't attack the roots of the problem.

"The big issue is that there are powers that are greater than the law, and no-one does anything according to the law," Liu said.

As further reports of dead pig carcasses emerged in the central province of Hubei, protesters gathered outside government buildings in the southern city of Shenzhen to complain about pollution of their local river.

Hundreds demonstrated outside government offices in Shenzhen's Bao'an district on Tuesday, carrying banners protesting "stinking smoke" coming from a nearby waste treatment plant.

"Give me back my clean air," read another banner. Other placards called for the plant to be demolished.

Shenzhen-based rights activist Zhu Jianguo said such protests were becoming increasingly common as a way for citizens to put pressure on local government on environmental issues.

"The highest levels of government regard this huge backlash of public opinion against it as being a security issue," Zhu said. "So they often pressure the local governments into making a concession."

"The government threatens them, and the people threaten them, and out of that, you get some kind of solution," he said.

But he said the use of protest to apply political pressure usually only resulted in temporary fixes.

"It doesn't address the conflict at a deeper level, so eventually, a similar problem will spring up again," Zhu said.

Leadership issue

However, activists said that the Ministry of Environmental Protection in Beijing had failed to provide leadership at a national level.

Song Xinzhou, who heads the non-government environmental group Green Beijing, said that supervision was patchy by the ministry.

"Each environmental protection bureau at the local level governs its own affairs, and there is a different attitude to be found within each one," Song said.

"In some places, environmental protection officials are involved in running polluting industries."

The environmental website China Dialogue also hit out at the ministry, saying it had done very little in the past five years since it was given ministry status.

"Despite its lowly status, the State Environmental Protection Agency [SEPA) had the courage to act, which was encouraging," wrote commentator Liu Jianqiang.

The article credited SEPA with enforcement raids on large electricity companies, regional planning restrictions to prevent law-breaking local governments from approving new projects until changes were made, and the halting of an illegal project at the Old Summer Palace lake, during which it encouraged public participation and democratic decision-making.

The old agency had also researched regulations on regional environmental impact assessments and a green GDP measure designed to solve over-reliance on financial GDP measures, Liu wrote.

"But after promotion to ministerial status brought greater powers and boosted career prospects for its employees, there was little action of note," he concluded.

Reported by Yang Fan and Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.