Its economy may be slowing, but China will not return to its past policy of growth at all costs, said Environment Minister Chen Jining. Instead, it will continue to strike hard at errant companies and even local governments that shirk their responsibility in tackling pollution.
Making plain China's commitment to tackle one of its toughest social ills, Mr Chen used strong words when he criticised local party cadres and officials for opposing or neglecting environmental protection work during a two-hour press conference yesterday.
"There are some local governments that favour development over environmental protection. Some even interfere in enforcement and inspection work, or neglect their responsibility," he said.
"There are also cases in which laws are not upheld or applied strictly, or even cases in which offenders are not prosecuted. That is why reform is needed," he added.
A top priority this year is the setting up of a new administrative structure that will see provincial governments take direct responsibility for environmental protection work at the lower levels, Mr Chen said.
This will help minimise political interference and inaction especially in counties and towns where inspection and enforcement are weak.
So far, 17 out of China's 31 provinces have rolled out guidelines on this reform, with the rest targeted to do so by 2018, said the minister.
He also urged officials to stop viewing environmental protection as a burden and to remember that the growth-at-all-costs policy is a thing of the past, citing how China is now seeking slower but quality growth as part of the new normal advocated by President Xi Jinping.
"We need to recognise that we are at a new phase now and to start viewing environmental protection as a catalyst for our economic restructuring and upgrading efforts, instead of an impediment," he said.
Questions over China's commitment to its longer-term economic and social reforms have arisen as the world's No. 2 economy slows.
China, whose 6.9 per cent expansion last year was a 25-year low, has set a growth range of 6.5 to 7 per cent for this year, with some economists predicting it could even go below 6 per cent.
During the press conference held on the sidelines of the National People's Congress' annual session, Mr Chen also gave a report card on the Environmental Protection Law enacted in January last year, citing figures he revealed last month.
His ministry handled 715 cases of violations last year, collecting 569 million yuan (S$120 million) in daily fines from errant enterprises, he said. Tougher enforcement also led to a 34 per cent spike in fines collected, which reached 4.25 billion yuan.
Ministry officials also held talks last year with leaders of 15 city-level governments and instructed 51 others to beef up environmental inspections in their areas.
Mr Chen, 52, who was president of Tsinghua University until his Cabinet appointment in February last year, also fielded questions on air, water and soil pollution woes.
For instance, he said air quality has improved despite three severe bouts of pollution late last year that sparked domestic anger and drew worldwide attention.
He also noted that the PM2.5 levels in 74 cities last year dipped 14.1 per cent and that the percentage of land area affected by acid rain fell from 30 per cent in the 1990s to the current 8.8 per cent.
"We have tackled this problem better and earlier than the developed economies. I believe we can do better and our development can be greener," he added.