Changing tack? China, pollution and democracyBy Graham Land Mar 19, 2013 3:37AM UTC
Along with corruption and economic reforms, China’s pollution problem has been given unprecedented attention by its newly elected leaders. During Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping’s first speech as President of the PRC, the most powerful person in the country railed against corruption, “formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance”. Xi spoke to the close to 3,000 member National People’s Congress, considered by some to simply be a “rubber stamp” procedural body that unquestioningly approves measures proposed by the Communist Party, which in turn holds the real power.
But things are not so simple in China, as recent actions of the Congress have shown. Just prior to Xi’s speech, when presented with a normally routine procedure of approving the candidates for an environmental committee, about one third of the Congress rejected the proposal: 850 members voted “no” while 120 abstained.
Political science professor Dr Wu Qiang of Tsinghua University explains the surprising result as something caused by the galvanizing nature of pollution. He is quoted by Australia’s ABC News:
The reason for the vote is that these delegates not only realise the seriousness of environmental pollution, but also because they are influenced by public opinion. Now in China it’s not a certain group or a certain class, but all people who are becoming involved in this environment disaster.
High profile protests against various polluting industries and the recent shocking air quality in Chinese cities (not to mention now close to 12,000 dead pigs found in a river outside Shanghai) have helped to place the environment at center stage in Chinese politics.
Though President Xi’s speech did not directly mention pollution problems, China’s new Premier Li Keqiang, in his first press conference, did.
Here are some quotes from it (via China Daily):
This government will show even greater resolve and take more vigorous efforts to clean up such pollution […] We need to face the situation and punish offenders with no mercy and enforce the law with an iron fist […] We shouldn’t pursue economic growth at the expense of the environment. Such growth won’t satisfy the people.
Much of this growth that Premier Li was referring to – and its resulting pollution – is the direct consequence of Western economies moving the production of their goods to China. One local official, Liao Xuegang, Director of the Anhui Provincial Environmental Protection Authority, recently pointed this out. As true as this statement may be, environmental activists in China were not pleased by this “passing the buck” tactic, claiming it shifted responsibility away from China’s businesses, whose only duty is to follow the letter of the law.
Read more on this and related stories in China Dialogue.