Elections May Be the Cure for China's Smog

A commentary by Bao Tong
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china-smog-shanghai-dec-2013.jpg Tourists visit the Bund in Shanghai amid heavy smog on Dec. 5, 2013.

Since 2013 arrived, Beijing has been enveloped in thick smog. This month, Nanjing and 25 provinces were also smothered by the airpocalypse. Eradicating the smog, as well as eradicating all forms of pollution, has become our urgent priority if we are to save the country and rescue the people. The smog disaster will require the serious efforts of all 1.3 billion of our compatriots. If we are not to become traitors to our own people, this cannot be taken lightly.

Even though "smog," in Chinese, contains the word "fog," it has little to do with fog. The addition of the word "fog" gives rise to the illusion that this is a natural phenomenon and that God is responsible. But God has been framed.

Smog is air pollution; just like water pollution and soil pollution. They are all man-made—the result of our obsession with industrial development and our reluctance to invest the necessary funds in clean technology.

It is the product of a system where there are no elections.

If the Chinese people genuinely enjoyed the right to vote in elections as laid down in the Constitution, China's pollution would not have gotten as bad as it is today.

It's very simple. In a system where the executive must win elections, investors are able to develop polluting industries, but local residents will then, in order to preserve their life and health and that of their families, take decisive and even excessively harsh steps to make them clean up.

An official who doesn't care about public opinion, from mayor up to president, will be cast aside by the electorate, so it is unlikely that they wouldn't be on the side of public opinion in such circumstances.

This is the most reliable form of constraint. In the civilized world, such constraints are everywhere, to the mutual benefit of development and a cleaner environment.

Only those countries that make the excuse of their local characteristics to refuse democracy ... will see public opinion and people's livelihood as a destabilizing factor.

So how did China's executive come to ally itself with polluting industry? According to Deng Xiaoping's theory, development ... has the final word.

This goes right back to Mao Zedong and the "hard reasoning" of the Great Leap Forward [1958-1960].

Meanwhile, the movement of capital is closely bound up with the movement of officials. Smog and corruption are the same color. They go together like fish and water, in a state of incomparable happiness.

Mortgaging our environment by keeping up our high-speed, low-cost development activities, whether corrupt or not, will lead to suicidal forms of pollution.

The official who doesn't fear pollution is one who doesn't care whether ordinary people live or die, and he will be brave and pro-active in suppressing them.

In a democratic country, water, soil and air pollution are like a rat in the street, hunted by everybody.

Under the China model, the rats run wild and wreak havoc in their own special paradise.

As human beings, we should have the right to dream a dream of fresh air, clean water, and non-toxic soil.

So if the party leadership were to announce that officials were no longer to be evaluated on the basis of GDP [in their region], wouldn't that solve the pernicious problem of pollution that is poisoning the whole country?

Let's hope such wishes may come true, though I fear they are of no use.

The emphasis on doubling GDP is aimed at guaranteeing the rise of China, and the ambition to become a superpower.

But I'd like to know who will take the blame if this dream doesn't come to pass?

Instead of just issuing another unattainable target, why don't they return power to the people through local democratic elections? This would force officials to see their fate as entwined with that of the local people. This is the right and legitimate path to an effective system, and to the "rectification" of officials.

To enjoy fresh air and clean water and soil, we also need a fair and transparent, stable system of government under the rule of law that enjoys the support and confidence of its citizens.

We must cast aside the system of Mao Zedong, and implement the Constitution along with universal elections.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.


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