China Shifts Pollution Blame


July 18: 2006: Cyclists pass through thick pollution from a factory in Yutian, in China's northwest Hebei province. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

Chinese officials are trying to deflect blame for the country’s pollution onto foreign firms, accusing them of “environmental colonialism,” experts say. The move follows government concern over thousands of anti-pollution protests in the past year.

In a December 3 opinion piece in The Washington Post , a leading China analyst called the effort a “blame game.”

Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said that Chinese officials, the press, and some activists have charged multinational corporations with “exporting pollution” by sourcing their products in China and ignoring environmental rules.

Economy said the campaign aimed at foreign investors began in October when Pan Yue, deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), accused developed countries of practicing “environmental colonialism” by investing in China’s polluting industries.

I think blaming foreigners is a very attractive way of deflecting attention, and perhaps even deflecting some of the social unrest away from corrupt local officials and poorly enforced regulations and onto the international community.

Similar accusations followed, including a report by China’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which published a list of over 2,700 “serious polluters,” including 33 joint ventures of multinational corporations.

The group’s list included Chinese affiliates of Panasonic, PepsiCo, and Nestle among other foreign firms, according to a report in the official China Daily .

According to Economy, Chinese press reports “focused exclusively on the 33 multinationals … and ignored the more than 2,600 Chinese companies similarly cited. The reason, she thinks, is that worldwide attention has been drawn to China’s pollution problems with the approach of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Officials have sought to avoid blame after a wave of over 50,000 environmental protests in the country last year, she said.

May 23, 2005: A worker drives a tractor near a chimney-stack at a cement factory in China's southwestern county of Qianwei, in Sichuan province. Photo: Liu Jin

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Economy said, “I think blaming foreigners is a very attractive way of deflecting attention, and perhaps even deflecting some of the social unrest away from corrupt local officials and poorly enforced regulations and onto the international community.”

Companies seek better enforcement

Economy added that multinational corporations operating in China have in fact been seeking better enforcement by local environmental protection bureaus. “It’s a very difficult and arduous process for [these corporations] to go down through … a hundred or a thousand factories to ensure that they’re all adhering to the Chinese environmental protection laws.”

Jennifer Turner, coordinator of the China Environment Forum at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, agreed that internal political problems are a main cause of China’s pollution. “The success of China’s economic reforms came from the decentralization of power to local governments,” Turner said.

“That has meant that local governments are motivated to make money, and local governments also own most of the local industries. So there’s clearly no incentive for them to regulate pollution coming from their own industries.”

April 6, 2006: Traffic flows along Beijing's Second Ring Road. Officials are planning a host of stringent measures to clear the city's badly polluted air ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games Photo: Frederic J. Brown

Greater international scrutiny

Turner said that international awareness of China’s pollution problems has grown since last year’s massive spill of toxic benzene into the Songhua River in northern Jilin Province. That accident, which poisoned the water supply for the nearby city of Harbin, resulted from an explosion at a chemical plant owned by the China National Petroleum Corporation with no foreign involvement.

“Overwhelmingly, it’s the local Chinese businesses that are contributing the most pollution in China,” Turner said.

“The Chinese public is becoming angrier about environmental problems,” Turner added, “and I think it’s an easy out to want to blame international companies for it. And unfortunately, it’s exaggerating the role of international industries in China contributing to pollution.”

Turner noted that China’s State Environmental Protection Administration employs only 300 people, but is responsible for seeing that power plants and factories install and maintain required anti-pollution equipment.

“[This is] clearly an issue of not having enough capacity or resources, which is another area where many of us who watch China and look at the environment would like to see improvements.”

Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.


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