BEIJING - We will make our skies blue again.
This was the promise that Premier Li Keqiang made on Sunday (March 5), in the wake of public backlash over successive winters that saw Beijing and other northern cities blanketed in smog.
This, as well as other social issues such as poverty, education, and healthcare, has to be solved speedily to demonstrate that development can better people’s lives, Mr Li said in presenting the government work report at the opening of the annual meeting of the national parliament, or National People's Congress (NPC).
The ruling Communist Party is seeking to wean the Chinese economy off its dependence on heavily polluting industries such as steel and coal to a more service-oriented economy fuelled by consumer demand, amid growing anger among the people over environmental degradation.
In recent months, police have cracked down on protests sparked by pollution in several major cities and moved to censor online complaints about bad air.
The government signalled on Sunday it will attack the three main causes of air pollution: coal burning, vehicle exhaust, and industrial discharge.
China will cut steel capacity by 50 million tonnes and coal output by more than 150 million tonnes this year, its top economic planner said in its work report at the NPC.
The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said it would shut or stop construction of coal-fired power plants with capacity of more than 50 million kilowatts.
China aims to completely upgrade its coal-fired power plants to meet ultra-low emission standards by 2020, and replace coal burners with those that run on electricity and natural gas in three million households.
The country will also move to scrap all high-emission vehicles, while all industry players that have been identified as key polluters will be placed under "round-the-clock" online monitoring, Mr Li added.
“Officials who do a poor job in enforcing the law, knowingly allow environmental violations, or respond inadequately to worsening air quality will be held fully accountable,” he said, in a warning that Beijing is watching local governments who sometimes close an eye to polluters in the pursuit of growth.
“Tackling smog is down to every last of us, and success depends on actions and commitment. As long as the whole of our society keeps trying, we will have more and more blue skies with each passing year.”
Mr Li also set out a list of projects it has planned for this year to raise farmers’ incomes and tackle poverty, another area it sees as a key priority.
Farmers will get help to replace grain crops with higher-profit feed crops, as China ramps up livestock production to feed its growing middle class. Over 1.3 million hectares of farmland, about 20 times the size of Singapore, will also be outfitted with highly water-efficient irrigation.
The government also plans to build and upgrade 200,000km of roads in rural areas, while improving access to clean water and reliable electricity. And fiber-optic broadband will be rolled out to 30,000 administrative villages by year’s end.
Another area that will see significant reform is in education, where China plans to close the inequality gap by standardising tuition fees, textbooks and other costs for rural and urban students.
It will also make compulsory education accessible to all permanent residents in urban areas, whether they have local urban household registration or not. The plan will benefit children of migrant workers, who often lack urban household registration, or hukou.
They are forced to stay in their home village to receive an education, resulting in a generation of "left-behind children" often cared for by their grandparents or other relatives.
This phenomenon, and the lower standard of rural education, has been fingered by researchers as the main cause of poor education attainment in the countryside.
“We will develop education that satisfies the needs of our people, make the modernisation of education underpin the modernisation of our country, and see that more children realise their dreams and more families have their hopes fulfilled,” said Mr Li.