Chinese environment inspectors vow to ‘get tough’ on local officials over pollution

William Zheng
·4-min read

Chinese environment inspectors have vowed to “get tough” on local officials who do not take action on pollution, revealing details of cases uncovered in their latest round of checks to state media.

The Ministry of Ecology and Environment said eight local governments had failed to adequately deal with pollution problems in the provinces of Shanxi, Liaoning, Anhui, Jiangxi, Henan, Hunan and Yunnan, and in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

It made the assessment on Friday, after it sent environment inspection teams to those areas 10 days earlier.

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In northeastern Liaoning, inspectors said Communist Party and government officials in the city of Tieling had “long ignored” complaints about residential waste water being discharged into a local river, according to reports carried by most state media outlets including broadcaster CCTV. They accused officials of “sitting on their hands” instead of fixing sewerage networks and treatment plants that had broken down in recent years.

The ministry said a temporary pipeline had been hastily installed in late March ahead of the inspection in a bid to show that the problem had been taken care of.

On Saturday, the inspectors named and shamed Chen Feng, the vice-mayor of Chongzuo in Guangxi, on state television in a report that became a hot topic on social media. CCTV aired footage of Chen being taken by inspectors to a polluted pond in the southern city, where he was asked if he could smell the fetid water. Chen told them on camera that he “didn’t expect the smell to be so strong”.

The inspectors said just 6.7 per cent of the city’s sewage was being treated – making it one of the worst offenders in China for environmental pollution – and slammed its government for failing to clean up its act.

In the central province of Hunan, the inspectors said they found a “black slick” in the Yangtze River caused by pollution from coal and iron storage in the city of Xiangtan, according to the reports.

China plans to clean up Yellow River and give its ‘sorrow’ a brighter future

Cities including Zhengzhou and Kaifeng, both in central Henan, were found to have been wasting irrigation water from the Yellow River to fill artificial lakes visited by tourists. Inspectors said irrigation projects had meanwhile never been completed and were instead being used as a dumping ground.

President Xi Jinping has stressed the importance of cleaning up key waterways the Yangtze and Yellow rivers as part of his green agenda.

Observers say that while the ministry is making progress, the Central Environmental Inspection teams should be working with local environmentalists, who could be given a bigger role to identify problems and achieve long-lasting results.

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said despite the strict inspections, local government officials were still covering up pollution because economic development continues to be an important factor for their careers.

“They always have the mindset of ‘I might be lucky and get away with it’ – because the potential reward for a solid economic development track record is huge,” Wu said.

He added that environmental NGOs should be part of Beijing’s efforts to tackle pollution, rather than relying on the ministry’s inspection teams.

Environmentalist Zhang Wenbin, who has been tracking pollution in China for years, agreed. He said many environmentalists were “thrilled” to see the inspection teams visiting their areas because they could “report environmental issues and cover-ups directly to a team from Beijing”.

“Local volunteers can also play a part in follow-up action [to address environmental problems],” Zhang said. “The inspection teams will come and go, but we are here to keep watch.”

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