China unveils environment inspectors

Residents of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, waiting at a traffic intersection amid heavy smog on Dec 10. The province, a major steel manufacturer and heavy coal user, contributes to much of the pollution that blights Beijing.
Residents of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, waiting at a traffic intersection amid heavy smog on Dec 10. The province, a major steel manufacturer and heavy coal user, contributes to much of the pollution that blights Beijing. PHOTO: REUTERS

High-level team with greater powers is a sign of commitment to tackle pollution

China has publicly debuted its first high-level environmental protection inspection team, in a move to show its commitment to tackling pollution.

Likened to the anti-corruption inspection teams that swept through the country in recent years in a hard-hitting campaign, the environmental inspectors were dispatched this week to heavily polluted northern Hebei province.

Led by retired deputy environment minister Zhou Jian and current Deputy Environment Minister Zhai Qing, the team aims to cover all of China's 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities in just two years.

The new team - featured in a news programme on state broadcaster CCTV on Tuesday night - is seen as having greater powers, as it is formed under the auspices of the Communist Party leadership and the State Council, which is China's Cabinet.

In the past, inspectors were overseen by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The elevated status - a first for environmental inspectors - gives the team broader authority to supervise not just industries, but also provincial government leaders, according to Chinese media reports.

In the past, local officials had been accused of turning a blind eye to errant polluters because they contribute significantly to a province's economy.

Media reports said the inspection team will compile evidence of environmental violations and corruption. Its findings will affect the performance appraisals of local officials, and those involved in misconduct will be punished.

"Regarding outstanding environmental problems and the deterioration of ecological management, those who need to be interviewed should be interviewed, those who need to be held responsible will be held responsible," Hebei's party secretary Zhao Kezhi was reported as saying at a meeting with provincial officials and the new environmental inspection team on Monday, the day the team kicked off its work.

In a rare move that underscores the seriousness of the authorities, CCTV showed footage of Mr Zhao and Hebei governor Zhang Qingwei being questioned by the two inspection team leaders.

The inspection comes after northern China last month suffered some of its worst pollution in recent memory, leading to a public outcry.

As the air quality soared past hazardous levels, Beijing issued an unprecedented emergency red alert, shutting schools and hauling cars off the roads.

Hebei has become synonymous with pollution, with seven of China's 10 most polluted cities located in the province. A major steel manufacturer and heavy coal user, it contributes to much of the pollution that blights neighbouring Beijing.

Despite pledges to limit pollution, environmental watchers say its factories frequently flout regulations.

Last month, the air was so bad in Hebei that an Environment Ministry inspection team lost its way on assignment amid the thick smog.

Mr Zhao noted in his address that the authorities have to be strict on leaders and cadres.

"Any dereliction of duty or abuse of power must be severely dealt with according to the law and party discipline," he said.

Environmental expert Ma Jun, who heads the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the new inspection team will likely force local governments to be on their toes.

But he feels the effect may only be temporary in provinces like Hebei, as the realities of more pressing issues such as the economy and employment will tilt the balance against environmental protection.

"For a holistic solution, local courts need to implement environmental laws more rigorously, while big industries should be made to declare how much pollution they are causing, so there can be public pressure on them as well," Mr Ma told The Straits Times.

"Right now, these things aren't being done. The inspection team is just one of many elements that need to come together."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2016, with the headline 'China unveils environment inspectors'. Print Edition | Subscribe