China: Environmental Degradation and Government Response

31 Mar, 2013    ·   3865

Namrata Hasija emphasises on the criticality of implementing stricter policy reforms to address the issue

Namrata Hasija
Namrata Hasija
Senior Research Officer

The thick smog covering Beijing and the great swathes of territory in the north and east, has led to the declaration of "Code Yellow," meaning the highest level of air pollution. Almost 11000 carcasses of pigs have been removed from the Huangpu River, which is a major source of drinking water for Shanghai; 1000 dead ducks were found in the Nanhe River in Pengshan county, Sichuan province.

What have been the varied responses of the government and society? Why are stricter laws not being implemented despite the growing awareness about environmental conditions amongst China’s political elite?

Official and Unofficial Responses: Government versus Blogosphere
The above developments led the Ministry of Environmental Protection of China to issue a notice in March 2013 to Chinese regional authorities, asking them to make efforts towards monitoring air pollution, and the general impact of pollution; towards prevention of population explosion, promoting the health of the existing population, and spreading awareness about the current environmental situation in China amongst its citizens.

Chinese authorities have been investigating the reason for these incidents but, as of now, no information has been released. Officials have, however, declared the water of both rivers safe for drinking. Laboratory tests have identified that some of the pig carcasses had porcine circovirus, a common disease that affects pigs but does not affect humans. Reports suggest the dead pigs may have been dumped from pig farms in Jiaxing, upstream of Shanghai. However, farmers have refused such allegations. In the case of the dead ducks in the Nanhe River, the reason of their deaths has not yet been determined as the officials say that their bodies were already decomposed.

The response of the citizens and bloggers is that of concern and criticism for the slow government response. China’s citizens have questioned the officials in the state-run dailies, on account of declaring the obviously contaminated waters of both rivers safe enough to drink. Indeed, bloggers have started a debate with many asking to forward the message to ask the city’s mayor and water authorities if they would be the first ones to drink the meat soup. Bloggers are also worried as to what will happen if live infected pigs find their way to food stores, as pork figures as a main ingredient in the diet of the Chinese people. One blogger, poet Pan Ting, was invited to “drink tea” by security officials after she asked her followers online to “take a stroll” along the Huangpu. This meant that she was called in to report about her alleged call for protest, and was asked to hand over all her communication devices. The episode has spawned a grim joke in the Chinese blogosphere: “In Beijing, you can get free cigarettes just by opening a window, but in Shanghai, you can have free pork chop soup just by turning on the tap.”

Major Issues Preventing Stricter Laws
The new Chinese leadership seems to acknowledge the crises more openly with the new Premier accepting the fact that the initial thrust on GDP growth was at the cost of the environment. This has especially been true in the years post liberalisation.

However, now China cannot make economic progress at the cost of the environment, as this will no longer satisfy the people, either within China or the rest of the world. He also accepted social surveillance on this, though he maintained that this path would be difficult, as the government will have to shake up vested interests in order to succeed. However, the concern for the degrading environment could also be seen in the National People’s Congress where the Minister of Environmental Protection (MEP), Zhou Shengxian, was re-appointed, but received the least number of votes for any minister.

Though concern is growing, the infighting within the government bureaucracy is one of the biggest obstacles to enacting stronger environmental policies. According to government data and interviews with people involved in policy negotiations, state-owned enterprises - especially China’s oil and power companies - have been putting profits ahead of health in working to outflank new rules. China still relies heavily on coal for its energy, which has resulted in the country being the number one greenhouse gas polluter in the world. With the increasing number of respiratory problems, and rising cases of asthma, lung cancer, and the like amongst its citizens; and the glare of the international spotlight on the country, it is becoming difficult for the Chinese government to ignore this crisis. Despite this, Melanie Hart, a policy analyst for the Centre for American Progress has said that no big changes will be made before 2015 as China is in the middle of its 12th Five Year Plan, which is dedicated to reduce carbon.

Though the Chinese state and media are not hiding the issues and problems related to environment degradation, the obstacles in bringing about strict reforms have also been identified. The question however, remains whether the new leadership is ready to really put environment before economic growth. Secondly, even if they introduce such reforms, will the strong business lobbies accept reforms over profit?