Chinese Premier's War on Pollution Seen Unlikely To Succeed

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A woman wears a mask in downtown Beijing, March 4, 2014 amid pollution smog.
A woman wears a mask in downtown Beijing, March 4, 2014 amid pollution smog.

Complicit officials and the continued persecution of environmental activists will stop Chinese premier Li Keqiang's declared "war on pollution" in its tracks, environmentalists said on Friday.

Li unveiled a raft of measures to tackle growing public anger over pollution that has been highlighted by swathes of dirty brown smog that now linger over much of northern China for days at a time, breaching international safety guidelines.

"We will resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty," Li told the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp parliament, in his debut annual work report.

Li described the smog as "nature's red-light warning against inefficient and blind development."

In a separate report, China's finance ministry said it had earmarked 21.1 billion yuan (U.S. $3.43 million) for spending on energy conservation and environmental protection in 2014, a rise of 7.1 percent compared with last year.

It also said that 64.9 billion yuan (U.S. $10.55) will be allocated to agriculture, forestry and water conservation, a rise of 8.6 percent.

Li said China would also aim to convert 333,300 hectares (823,602 acres) of marginal farmland to forest and grassland and would continue to fight desertification and recover wetlands.

'Serious destruction of the ecosystems'

Liang Biqi, of the natural disaster research center at Guangzhou's Zhongshan University, agreed with Li's agenda.

"The ecology of water sources must be protected," he said.

"There is serious destruction of the ecosystems in the Leishan district now, and a very serious problem of blind development and mining exploitation."

Major rivers across China all have their sources in the Leishan district of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, but the glaciers there are shrinking gradually year by year, and the desertification of the grasslands gets worse every day, according to Liang.

Liang called on Beijing to step up the process of retiring farmland, and restoring the forests and grasslands, beyond the targets allowed for in Li's report.

"Also, there are many problems with the water table across northern China because there is development on too large a scale, and extremely serious pollution of the aquifers," he said.

He said that rivers in the south, meanwhile, remain under huge environmental stress.

"Take the Pearl River here in Guangdong. Small and medium-sized enterprises continue to extract water from it on the quiet," he said.

'Polluter pays' scheme

Around the same time as Li declared his "war," China's state development and reform commission said it would set up a "polluter pays" scheme which would compensate victims of environmental damage and hold local officials accountable.

Campaigners say that China already has an exemplary set of environmental protection legislation, but that close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level.

Li said corruption remains one of the biggest barriers to environmental protection in China.

"In my opinion, it's not just the companies that should take responsibility, but the officials and government departments that are supposed to be overseeing them," he said.

Meanwhile, environmental activists who try to draw attention to polluting enterprises and the officials who turn a blind eye often find themselves detained, harrassed or subject to other forms of retaliation.

Wu Lihong, who served a jail term in connection with his advocacy work fighting pollution in central China's Taihu Lake, said he had been subject to increased security controls around the annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing, which ended this week.

"The treatment I received wasn't normal at all," Wu said. "I hadn't done anything to cause trouble around the parliamentary sessions, neither did I engage in illegal petitioning."

"I went to [Beijing] to propose a motion to cut down on greenhouse gases, but police from [my hometown of] Wuxi and Yixing, and even officials from my village, followed me to Beijing and forced me to return home."

"This violated my human rights."

High-sounding rhetoric

Wu said Premier Li's work report had some high-sounding rhetoric about environmental protection, but that it was highly unlikely to be picked up by local governments anxious to boost revenue and economic growth figures.

"Where there's a will, there's a won't," Wu said of the relationship between Beijing and local officials.

"They don't take any measures at all."

The state development and reform commission has also promised to take action this year to tackle agricultural pollution, including the contamination of farmland by heavy metals, with 3.33 million hectares (8 million acres) believed to be too polluted to grow crops.

Last month, the government said it would spend 2 trillion yuan (U.S. $330 billion) on tackling pollution of scarce water resources.

But Wu remained skeptical, saying that central government had been ordering a clean-up of Taihu Lake for the past decade, but the pollution levels in the lake had changed little in that time.

"It's all just hot air, when the government blames chemical companies for serious pollution levels," he said.

Worsening levels of air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced ordinary Chinese to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protests, according to a 2013 report from the Friends of Nature group.


According to Wu, the only solution to the problem lies with government acceptance of independent, non-government activists like himself.

"If they continue to persecute environmentalists and rights activists, and to refuse any public oversight, then there is no hope at all for a solution to China's environmental problems," he said.

Officials have warned that China is facing a "grave" environmental crisis, with more than half its cities affected by acid rain and one-sixth of its major rivers too polluted even to water the crops with.

Last July, activists in the eastern city of Nanjing called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to make public details of drinking water quality following a clampdown on the industry, and amid growing fears for public health and consumer safety.

China issued a document on July 1, 2012 setting new safety standards for public drinking water suppliers, boosting the number of mandatory purity tests to 106 from just 35, but activists say there has been no update from the government since.

Official media reported in January 2012 that less than 50 percent of China's piped water supply passed the government's own quality standards.

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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