Environment Low on List of China's Reforms

An analysis by Michael Lelyveld
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Tourists visit Tiananmen Square in Beijing amid heavy smog, Nov. 23, 2013.
Tourists visit Tiananmen Square in Beijing amid heavy smog, Nov. 23, 2013.

China's government has assigned a relatively low priority to energy and the environment in its agenda of planned reforms, experts say.

Recent policy documents released by the ruling Chinese Communist Party Central Committee following its third plenary session under President Xi Jinping make no mention of the smog choking China's cities or immediate steps to bring it under control.

Instead, the Third Plenum's communique on Nov. 12 deals with environmental issues in only general terms, promising to "draw red lines for ecological protection."

The statement near the end of the 3,800-word communique also calls for "reform [of] ecological and environmental protection and management systems," but provides no specifics.

In a more detailed document listing 60 reform tasks on Nov. 16, environmental initiatives are covered again near the end in sections 51 through 54.

According to the document, the government will establish a "comprehensive system ... featuring the strictest possible rules to protect the ecological system."

Old measures

But many of the plans include measures presumed to have been taken already.

"Establish a system in which all pollutants are monitored and regulated," says item 54.

"Improve the discharge licensing system and control the pollutants. Polluters who damage the environment must compensate for the damage and could receive criminal sanctions," it reads.

In dealing with energy use, the agenda's message appears mixed, vowing on the one hand to "push ahead with price reforms" for water, oil, gas, and electricity, while keeping government-set prices for public utilities.

The outline includes a consumption tax on energy-intensive products, but it does not say when it will be imposed.

The documents do not mention steps to reduce reliance on high-polluting coal or refer to the government's recent five-year action plan to fight smog.

No timetables

China experts cited the lack of detailed steps and timetables for energy and environmental reforms.

"There are so many points here where they say things are important, things should be done," said David Bachman, a China specialist and political science professor at the University of Washington. "Other than that, I don't see much here that's specific at all."

The general policy statements and platitudes may reflect an inability to address China's most immediate problems.

"Even if they said it, it's going to take a long time before they do anything about the smog," said Bachman. "Maybe it's better not to have given rise to expectations that can be met only over a much longer period of time."

The government has given few clues about when it will start or complete planned reforms.

"The plenum demanded that decisive results are achieved in important areas and crucial segments by the year 2020," the communique said.

A setback

Bachman sees the vagueness of the agenda as a sign that President Xi Jinping was unable to marshal party support for another historic wave of reforms despite a year of consensus-building effort.

"That's what this was supposed to do, and since they couldn't do it, it speaks to a failure of the decision-making system," he said.

Instead, the plenum resolved to concentrate power under a new "central leading team" to design and coordinate policies. A new "National Security Committee" will also be formed.

"In important ways, this was a setback. It wasn't simply inconclusive," Bachman said. "It was a failure in some ways."

'Not going to mean anything'

Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, sees problems with both the generalities of the reform measures and the lack of deadlines for them to take effect.

"We're going to hear a lot of things that are going to be sold to us as reform," said Scissors. "They're not going to mean anything."

State controls over energy pricing are expected to ease only gradually, limiting the burdens on consumers and the economy. But the result is likely to limit the environmental benefits, as well.

"When they say 'gradual,' it's usually an excuse for 'it's not going to happen,'" Scissors said. "The times we've had successful reform, it's been sharp, not gradual."

Scissors argued that China's environmental problems stem from state control of the economy, which he does not see ending anytime soon, despite promises to give the market a "decisive" role.

The communique's shift in emphasis toward the market is not expected to bring competition and private ownership to state-owned enterprises and industries, which have been primary sources of pollution.

"The environmental destruction has been created by the state. They won't reverse that, so the best they're going to do is to inhibit the damage going forward," Scissors said.





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