China Shutters Factories, Sends Out Inspection Teams in Renewed Fight Against Smog

2017-10-25
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Environment minister Li Ganjie talks to the media at Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly national congress in Beijing.
Environment minister Li Ganjie talks to the media at Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly national congress in Beijing.
Reuters

China has shuttered tens of thousands of factories amid a growing pollution crisis, recent media reports have indicated, in a bid to stave off another "airpocalypse" during the winter central heating season, recent media reports indicate.

The country's ministry of environmental protection has sent out thousands of inspectors to shut down factories that don't comply with strict new emissions standards, and has the power to cut off their electrical and gas supplies until they have been fully assessed, according to a recent report in Bloomberg and the Washington Post.

More than U.S.$130 million dollars in fines have been levied through the tax system against 18,000 companies who failed to meet the stricter environmental regulations to date, according to U.S. National Public Radio.

But Beijing was still swathed in dirty brown smog for much of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly national congress last week, in spite of a slew of recent bold measures aimed at improving deadly air pollution by the end of this year.

In 2014, premier Li Keqiang declared war on pollution, which killed around nine million people in 2015, according to a recent study in The Lancet medical journal, half of them in India and China.

And a recent University of Chicago study found that residents of northern China can expect to lose three years from their lifespan compared with compatriots in the south, where there is less heavy industry and central heating.

The 19th party congress said in its closing communique that more must be done, after being warned by environment minister Li Ganjie that the overall pollution picture is "extremely serious."

"Only 84 cities out of 338 meet environmental targets, and pollution is worsening in the worst-polluted places," Li told the congress. "Structurally, heavy industry still makes up far too large a proportion of output."

"There is also an overly heavy reliance on the burning of coal, and on road transportation," he said. "Some enterprises don't have a law-abiding attitude, and there is widespread flouting of legislation."

Beijing environmentalist Song Xinzhou said the main problem lies with the failure to implement existing rules and regulations.

"For example, some industries need to be repurposed, and curbs put on the more extreme polluters, and government policy has kept pace with this need," Song said. "If only they would actually implement these policies, then things would start to improve gradually."

"They have to really get out there and promote these changes; that's the most important thing."

Corruption, vested interests

Wuxi-based environmental activist Wu Lihong said local governments currently present the biggest obstacle to implementing existing laws.

"The leadership at the highest level is genuinely keen to get this sorted, but in the current political system, there's not much it can do," Wu said. "The first problem is that officials are engaging in corruption."

"The economy isn't doing very well in China right now ... so lower-ranking officials are looking to protect polluting industries even more," he said. "They'll pay lip-service to respecting environmental legislation, but they are getting quietly tipped off [about inspections]."

"This was happening even for pollution checks in my hometown before the 19th party congress, so they would quit production a little early, and then have the inspection done," he said.

The party congress nevertheless vowed in its closing communique to "take tough steps to forestall and defuse major risks, carry out targeted poverty alleviation, and prevent and control pollution."

Alongside the factory closures, the government is imposing a widespread moratorium on coal-burning and steel production, believed to be major drivers of air pollution in industrial areas of the country.

Controls put in place ahead of the 19th party congress look set to remain until the annual meeting of the National People's Congress in March, official media reported in August.

International development NGO Global Citizen welcomed the closures in a recent article on its website.

"The recent halt on industrial operations across China are one of several signs that the government is serious about tackling the problem of pollution," the group said, adding that the United Nations' Global Goals for Sustainable Development include health and well-being, reduced inequality and action on climate change.

And moves are afoot to reduce waste caused by China's booming food takeout and delivery services.

Some 300 million Chinese people use online food ordering services, generating an estimated 65 million single-use food containers every day, The Economist reported recently.

Henan environmental activist Cui Huo said greater public education is needed to change people's attitude to litter and waste.

"A lot of people don't see environmental waste as a target to improve on, because it's not evaluated by the government," Cui said.
"Officials have no incentive to act."

"They are also part of a system of entrenched vested interests, and there is no opportunity for public oversight," he said. "There is no legal protection ... and no market incentives, and no non-government organizations to deal with it."

Reported by Yang Fan and Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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