On April 16 the Chinese government officially launched its new Ministry of Ecology and Environment – a larger, more powerful version of the former Environmental Protection ministry.
The next day, state broadcaster CCTV aired a 30-minute exposé of San Wei – a state-owned chemical company in the northern province of Shanxi – which is alleged to have dumped waste on rural land.
The report showed trucks tipping tonnes of fly-ash and coke slag into a pit near the village of Gouli.
Local farmers said that noxious dust often blanketed their crops, causing them to fail, and that wastewater from the San Wei plant was being pumped into the nearby river.
“If you complain you get beaten up,” one villager told the TV station.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made clear he intends to refocus on pollution in his second term. In his speech to the 19th Party Congress in October, he named it as one of the “three critical battles” his government has to fight. Xi mentioned the environment 89 times – 16 times more than the economy – and said: “Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us. This is a reality we have to face.”
The creation of the new ministry was then announced at China’s parliamentary gathering in March (the so-called Two Meetings), alongside the formal launch of a new anti-graft agency. As WiC has written before, Xi’s government has used the anti-corruption body to help tackle environmental challenges too (see WiC381).
The new super-ministry will be headed by Li Ganjie – environment minister since June 2017 – and should enjoy higher status than its predecessors.
In the past it had to share jurisdiction in key areas with other government agencies. According to the environmental forum China Dialogue, the new ministry will take responsibility for emission and climate change policies from the National Development and Reform Commission, underground water pollution regulation will be peeled away from the Ministry of National Land and Resources, and agricultural pollution control transferred from the Ministry of Agriculture. It is adding 200 staff members and has seen its budget boosted by more than 70% over its predecessor, to almost Rmb12.2 billion ($1.9 billion), according to the China Daily.
China’s environmental problems are legion: 19% of its agricultural land has higher-than-permitted toxin levels; 80% of its shallow ground water is contaminated; and hundreds of its cities are regularly shrouded in poisonous smog.
In 2013, when air pollution was becoming a major public issue, then environment minister Zhou Shenxian acknowledged that his ministry was an “embarrassment” because it was so toothless. There have been improvements but the problem has not gone away. Air pollution indices rose by more than a quarter in some parts of northern China in March, and the region was also blanketed in smog in the second half of April.
A ministry spokesman blamed weak air circulation. “The air pollution campaign has entered a stage of stalemate, as Chairman Mao described in his famous book On Protracted War… The efforts we made have sometimes been offset by unfavourable weather, and it will take time for us to slip the leash of weather conditions to win the war,” he added.
The CCTV report on San Wei further illustrates the lawlessness on environmental matters in some rural areas, despite five years of crackdowns.
Even today, executives at San Wei are alleged to have bribed the head of the village and they did nothing to cover their tracks as up to eight trucks a day left the San Wei factory and drove to Gouli to tip waste into a pit.
The village head then threatened the visiting reporters and said he was prepared to take them hostage.
“They probably thought the mountains are high and the emperor is far away,” wrote Sohu News.
The day after the programme was broadcast, two of the village officials were detained and the new Ecology and Environment ministry launched an investigation.
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