China has hit another record, albeit a dubious one, after smog blanketed more than 25 provinces in the past week, affecting more than 100 large and medium-sized cities.
Signs abound that President Xi Jinping has had enough. He is beginning to talk tough and act equally tough about beating the smog problem in 2014.
Mainland media reported this week that Hebei, where the Chinese capital Beijing lies, is the worst polluted province in the mainland, according to a survey. Six to seven of the 10 most polluted cities in the country are in Hebei. Air quality in almost two-thirds of the first eight months this year was below acceptable levels in these areas.
Provincial governor Zhou Benshun said he was embarrassed when repeatedly asked by Xi about the pollution problem during a meeting in late September. Zhou reportedly said: “Our faces had turned red. We were sweating and sitting uncomfortably.”
Xi reportedly told the local officials: “You have mapped out a list of 38 measures. The crux of the matter is implementation. Hebei is faced with a slew of problems and contradictions accumulated over the years. The rectification [of the pollution problem] hinges upon vested interests. You have to make enormous efforts to cut down the production of steel, coal, cement and glass and to help reduce the level of pollutants in the air.”
Xi hit the nail on the head when he identified industrial overcapacity as the main culprit. This is despite the fact the burning of coal and emission from vehicles have been a major source of pollutants as well.
Given the fact those industries including steel, cement and glass are bound to produce more pollutants, overproduction could worsen the situation. The problem of overcapacity has been aggravated by the blind pursuit of gross domestic product growth by local government officials keen to burnish their political standing and boost their promotion prospects.
It was only in the past two years that the Communist Party leadership has woken up to a deteriorating environment caused by the race to achieve GDP growth at all cost.
In its 2014 economic bluebook released this week, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warns that pollution will be one of five factors that will constrain China’s economic growth next year. The others include local government debt and rising production costs.
The official think tank said the extent of smog pollution in coastal regions should prompt a rethink of the growth model.
In a bid to change the mindset of local officials, the party’s Organization Department issued guidelines on performance assessment in which environmental protection is a one of the key criteria.
Officials were told not to sacrifice quality growth and the environment for the sake of high-speed economic development.
Media reports said the annual Economic Work Conference, which started on Tuesday, sought a balance between economic development and environmental preservation. Officials and experts shared a sense of urgency for redoubling efforts to beat pollution before it is too late.
Earlier, the northeastern province of Liaoning promulgated regulations on air quality and, for the first time, fined eight cities. The fines came to 54.2 million yuan (US$8.92 million). Shenyang, the capital city, was fined 34.6 million yuan. The money will go toward air quality improvement.
After making headlines in the recent past, smog has emerged as a source of official embarrassment and public discontent toward the government.
When United States Ambassador to China Gary Locke made a surprise announcement to leave the post early next year, it was rumored that the filthy air in the Chinese capital was a big part of the reason. True or not, the speculation highlighted the fact that pollution has taken its toll on the country’s image and competitiveness.
With Chinese people getting more affluent and demanding better quality of life, there are concerns the educated middle class will vote with their feet for cleaner air elsewhere.
Along with the restructuring of the economy toward a more balanced, sustainable and high-quality model, a multi-pronged approach to tackle the pollution problem and improve air quality is needed to ensure the success of China’s ambitious reform agenda.
An anonymous mainland official was quoted as saying that 2013 will be remembered as a year of awakening about smog. And 2014 will be the year of full-scale battle against smog.
Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal
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