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China's credibility 'on the line'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezMarch 6, 2015

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has renewed pledges to tackle the country's air pollution as the issue takes center stage at the annual National People's Congress. But will it be enough? DW talks to analyst Isabel Hilton.

China / Volkskongress / Li Keqiang
Image: Reuters

"Environment pollution is a blight on people's quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts," Premier Li said on March 5 at the opening of the annual National People's Congress (NPC), the country's communist-controlled legislature, in Beijing. "We must fight it with all our might," he added, but failed to outline new significant measures in his opening speech.

Premier Li's statements follow the release of the documentary Under the Dome by a former CCTV anchor about the impact of Beijing's smog on her child. The film, which criticizes the government's handling of the issue, got hundreds of millions of clicks just a few days after its online release.

Last year, Premier Li had declared "war on air pollution." But one year on, analysts say there are few signs of progress as recently collected data show only little improvement in air quality in China's northern cities. Moreover, nearly 60 percent of the country's underground water is polluted, according to state media.

Derided in the West as a rubber-stamp parliament, the NPC is likely to discuss a host of regulations related to the world's second largest economy's environmental crisis. Isabel Hilton, a China expert and founder and editor of the non-profit organization chinadialogue, talks in a DW interview about the urgency to implement effective anti-pollution measures and explains why Beijing wants to be seen to act on this issue.

Isabel Hilton
Hilton: 'It is important that the government be seen to be taking the issue of air pollution seriously'Image: BBC One

DW: How important is this year's NPC in terms of adopting effective measures to tackle pollution?

Isabel Hilton: It is important that the government be seen to be taking the issues seriously, especially in the light of the extraordinary impact of the documentary Under the Dome last week, but so far we have not seen any startling new measures.

The government has been taking air pollution seriously since 2006 and has had some success in reducing sulphur dioxide. But overall air quality - and especially the problem of small particulate matter - has continued to deteriorate, largely because of coal and poor quality petroleum.

The past few years have seen repeated episodes of "airpocalypses" which have periodically paralyzed major cities, and the government certainly realizes that its credibility and legitimacy is on the line over China's environmental crisis. It wishes both to act and to be seen to act, and last year a new Environmental Protection Law was adopted that greatly increased the penalties for pollution.

One continuing difficulty, as Li Keqiang acknowledged, is in getting effective implementation and a robust court system that properly punishes violators.

When he said: "We must fight it with all our might. We must strictly enforce environmental laws and regulations; crack down on those guilty of creating illegal emissions and ensure they pay a heavy price for such offences; and hold those who allow illegal emissions to account, punishing them accordingly," he was admitting that this tends not to happen at present. Li has not really announced any substantial new measures. He has set some targets and has promised implementation.

But what will it take to tackle the issue effectively?

Cleaning up China's air will require fundamental changes to the country's energy structure, principally a drastic reduction in the use of coal. It will also require restrictions on carbon and improvements to the quality of fuel used.

Even then, it is likely to be at least a decade before China's city dwellers notice real improvements. This is difficult for the government, since people are already losing patience. Conspicuous punishment of violators will help to convince people that action is underway, but it may not be enough.

What challenges do the authorities face in terms of implementing these changes?

Implementing environmental improvement is not easy in any country. Other countries have been helped by having a robust civil society, a strong legal system, an effective and comprehensive system of inspection and a free press. China has had none of these so far, so laws are routinely ignored. The government has taken steps to strengthen the system of environmental courts, which is a good start.

And perhaps as a result of Under the Dome, the public will be emboldened to report violations on the Ministry of Environmental Protection's hotlines. Beyond that, there are structural reforms - bringing some major industries into line, rethinking the design and planning of China's cities, reforming the State Grid which will be resisted by incumbent vested interests.

Smog in Peking China 24.02.2014
'Air quality in China has continued to deteriorate, mainly because of coal and poor quality petroleum'Image: STR/AFP/Getty Images

How urgent is the implementation of effective anti-pollution measures in China?

It is urgent for environmental, social and political reasons. The toxic legacy of China's industrial revolution is severe: air, soil and water pollution impact health, food safety, food security and energy - all of which are important. For a long time, most Chinese people were happy that the economy was growing and they were getting better off. But as the full impacts become clearer they are no longer happy, and as the economy slows, they are more likely to blame the government.

What impact is pollution having on people's health?

Air pollution reduces life expectancy in North China by six years, compared to South China. The difference is that North China burns more coal. In addition, heart disease and cancers are epidemic because of pollution.

How is the pollution issue affecting Chinese businesses and potentially foreign investment?

There is a growing reluctance among expatriates, especially those with young children, to live in China's major cities. The impact on business and investment is more complicated: Chinese businesses are only beginning to understand environmental risk as a material factor.

Some businesses will be impacted by water shortages and water contamination. Others will be closed down or fined by government for failing to meet standards. Foreign investors will have to weigh these factors carefully.

Symbolbild Treibhausgase Klimawandel Umweltverschmutzung
'Cleaning up China's air will require fundamental changes to the country's energy structure'Image: picture alliance/AP Images

What impact do you think the recent documentary will have on China's people and policymakers?

The recent documentary was a major phenomenon and one that had quiet support from some branches of government - notably the weak and underfunded Ministry of Environmental Protection. It may strengthen the ministry's hand as it does battle with other, more powerful entities that will resist change. People have been galvanized; but how they will direct their energies and how much the government will allow in terms of citizen action is unclear.

Isabel Hilton is a London-based writer and broadcaster. She is founder and editor of chinadialogue, an independent, non-profit organization based in London, Delhi, Beijing and San Paolo.