A case of brazen environmental fraud has shaken trust in China's air quality data and raised doubts about the adequacy of its anti-pollution programs.
On Oct. 21, three senior environmental officials in northwestern China's Shaanxi province were detained on suspicion of tampering with an air quality monitoring station to falsify reports, state media said.
The incident in the Chang'an district of Xi'an "highlights the need for the authorities to show zero tolerance toward any deception concerning air quality monitoring data and ensure those responsible pay a high price," said the Beijing News.
According to China Daily, the officials allegedly made a duplicate key to gain access to monitoring equipment, which they covered with yarn to filter out pollution.
"It is thought the trio began tampering with the equipment in February, in a bid to artificially improve the district's air quality readings, so as to avoid punitive action," the official English-language paper said. Several other reports said that five officials were involved.
Details of the case in Shaanxi's smoggy provincial capital suggest that the violation was particularly blatant, since it involved environmental officials and a monitoring station "directly administered by the Environmental Protection Ministry."
Employees at the station allegedly deleted surveillance video "to ensure that inspectors would not see their actions," The New York Times said, citing the initial report by the provincial paper Chinese Business View.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) did not respond to requests for comment, but within days, China Daily reported that the agency had dispatched 10 teams of inspectors to check the performance of 20 provinces following periods of poor air quality and winter smog in northern regions.
News of the inspections was followed by an announcement from the cabinet-level State Council that China will conduct its second national census of pollution sources, but not until December 2017. Results will be released in 2019, the MEP said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Attempt to restore confidence
The statements appear to be aimed at assuring the public that the government is doing something about collusion between environmental officials and industrial interests, while trying to restore confidence in reports that show improved air quality readings despite frequent bouts of lung- choking smog.
On Oct. 20, Xinhua reported that the average density of the finest smog-forming particles, known as PM 2.5, had decreased by 11.3 percent in the first nine months of the year in seven northern provinces.
But the reported concentrations were still more than double the density considered safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The claim of improvement came one day after PM 2.5 readings in six downtown districts of Beijing spiked to more than five times the average provincial levels, reducing visibility to less than one kilometer (0.6 miles).
On Monday, Beijing environmental officials said that average PM 2.5 levels had dropped 8.6 percent in the first 10 months of the year, but the density was again more than twice as high as WHO safe standards.
Last week, the MEP said smog had covered over 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) in northern regions.
Some cities reported visibility of less than 100 meters (109 yards).
On Saturday, meteorological authorities issued the second smog alert of the week for northern regions, citing an "unfavorable weather condition for not properly dispersing air pollutants," Xinhua said.
Aside from the weather, the government has blamed corrupt officials and industrial practices for the problem.
On Oct. 21, the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP) said it had punished 1,124 officials for dereliction of duty and 838 other individuals for corruption related to environmental protection since the start of 2015.
On Oct. 25, state media reported that MEP inspectors had found "several problems causing pollution, including frequent illegal discharges from coke and steel plants."
Xinhua later named Yutai Coking Co. in northern Hebei province as one of several companies that had falsified data to avoid fines for excessive pollution.
How big is the problem?
While the tampering incident in Xi'an may be an egregious violation, it does not answer the questions of how widespread the incidence of environmental fraud in China may be and how big a problem it is.
Daniel Gardner, a Smith College history professor in Massachusetts and a senior fellow at Columbia University's Center for Sustainable Development, sees signs that the central government has known that fake data has been a serious issue for some time.
"I suspect that the urge to massage pollution figures at the local level is not uncommon," Gardner said by email.
"This would explain why both the newly revised Environmental Protection Law and the recently amended Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law single out for punishment local officials found guilty of falsifying pollution data," he said.
The Xi'an case is notable because officials allegedly subverted MEP safeguards. It also demonstrates the strength of ties to local sources of pollution despite the risks of defying central authority.
A statement by the recent Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee's sixth plenary session suggests that punishment for the falsification could be harsh.
"The CPC (Communist Party of China) opposes any act of duplicity or double-dealing, and it will not tolerate deception, exaggeration, hiding the truth, or reporting only good news while holding back the bad," said the statement issued on Oct. 27.
But the threat of severe penalties may also be a source of motivation to cheat.
Gardner notes that some local officials who have failed to meet environmental targets have been brought before the MEP in Beijing since late 2014.
"It goes without saying that no local official is eager to be summoned to Beijing," he said. "It's not a big leap to suppose that the environmental officials in Xi'an ... were doing what they could to ensure that their city's pollution levels did not attract Beijing's attention."
Although the focus has been on local officials, the central government may share responsibility for the fabrications by continuing to set relatively high economic growth targets while demanding air quality improvements at the same time.
Lines of authority
As in other aspects of environmental enforcement, the government has chosen to deal with the data fraud problem by redesigning lines of authority to loosen the ties of officials to local interests.
In the wake of the Xi'an scandal, China Daily reported that efforts to free air quality monitoring stations from local government control are "almost complete."
The MEP has been in the process of separating 1,436 monitoring stations from the supervision of provincial, city and county environmental bureaus, shifting their operations to private companies that report directly to the MEP.
The government introduced a similar program last November to make independent commercial entities responsible for preparing environmental impact assessments (EIAs) that are required for significant projects and construction.
The rule followed a central government investigation that found "widespread trading of money and influence" in preparation of EIAs, including "kickbacks for helping companies obtain easy approval during the assessment process," China Daily reported earlier this year.
The government has also been trying to eliminate falsification of economic data at the local level for the past several years by requiring enterprises to report production figures directly to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
It remains to be seen whether the experiments with independent commercial entities in EIA preparation and air quality monitoring will be effective in reducing corruption and increasing the accuracy of pollution reports.
In the Xi'an case, the violations took place at a monitoring station that was already under the direct administration of the MEP.
Gardner said the outsourcing to independent companies is a reflection of Beijing's mistrust of local environmental bureaus.
The transfer of control may also be needed to establish greater credibility in the government's air quality claims.
"I read the very public coverage of the MEP's displeasure with Xi'an officials as a pronouncement by the ministry that it intends to rein in the autonomy of the local environmental bureaus and make them more directly answerable to the MEP's priorities and policies," Gardner said.