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The inspectors call: Chinese environmental crackdown

A worker welds metal parts in a steel workshop in the city of Tangshan, Hebei Province, near Beijing A worker welds metal parts in a steel workshop in the city of Tangshan, Hebei Province, near Beijing Junrong / Shutterstock
04 Nov
China’s central government is to shut down factories and punish local officials in the latest sweep of environmental crackdowns across the country

It’s being called China’s ‘war on pollution’. Now in its fourth round of tough environmental inspections, the nation’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has already sanctioned 18,000 polluting companies, with fines totalling more than 1.2 billion yuan (£8million), and has punished 15,000 officials since inspections began last year. A scroll through the ministry’s website news feed – now full of inspection press releases – informs that even more are on the way.

‘The Chinese government has turned very serious about fighting pollution,’ says Wei Yao, a specialist in Chinese economics at Société Générale, a financial company headquartered in Paris. She identifies a key objective as being the reduction of air pollution in the winter period in Northern China: ‘There is a long list of targets for heavy-polluting industries such as coal power generation, metal smelting and manufacturing that will be curbed in order to reduce PM2.5 particle pollution and heavy pollution days by 10 to 25 per cent in 26 cities across the four provinces of Hebei, Henan, Shanxi and Shandong.’

According to the nation’s reduction targets, as many as 180,000 enterprises will face either closure or production suspension – around five per cent of the total across the provinces. However, for the steel-producing region of Hebei, the crackdowns will come down particularly hard, halting an estimated 15 per cent of factories.

The hard line on air pollution is the ministry’s attempt to avoid the near-record levels of smog seen at the beginning of the year, when the levels of hazardous PM2.5 particles were recorded as being 70 per cent higher than during the same period in 2016. Though annual pollution levels had been dropping, the bad winter suggested that local governments were not upholding environmental regulations. Thus, the second part of the campaign is targeted at the stricter implementation of environmental regulation across the country. In other words, China is holding local officials themselves to account for failing to meet environmental regulations.

‘This campaign may even have a lasting impact on local officials’ behaviour,’ says Yao. ‘The inspections have affected potential promotions of thousands of officials, a stern reminder to other officials that environmental production should be given high priority.’

The number of officials being disciplined is unprecedented. However for Yanzhong Huang, an expert on China at the Council of Foreign Relations, the campaign-style policy implementation by the ministry did not come as a surprise ‘given the presence of a strong state with rapidly centralising political power’.

‘There will certainly be a trade-off between the crackdown and economic growth, at least in the short run,’ he says. ‘Unemployment may go up and growth may drop in some regions.’ For the Chinese, such losses are seen as being a necessary price for clearer skies.

This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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