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China’s war on pollution and campaign for stronger ecological protections could continue for decades, now that President Xi Jinping has been approved to remain in power past his original two-term limit.
Xi, who took office in 2013, has launched aggressive air and water pollution reduction efforts that created havoc for factories and supply chains across China, particularly in the past year, when thousands of small polluting companies were fined, suspended, or shuttered. In the second half of 2017, Beijing witnessed its cleanest air in years due to intense targeting of airborne pollution.
“With the experience from the past few years since China declared a war on pollution, and with unprecedented power at the center, Xi is not only willing and able to deploy resources but also to pay the price [in terms of the economy],” Li Shuo, senior global policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing, told Bloomberg Environment. “The air quality in Beijing during the past winter is the best case in point.”
China will stay the course and continue to “fight three major battles” in 2018: managing financial risk, targeting acute poverty, and preventing and controlling pollution, said Premier Li Keqiang, who outlined a course of environmental action at the March 5 opening of the annual National People’s Congress, the country’s legislative body.
As it continues its fight against air pollution—namely, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate emissions—China also will try to halt the practice of dumping construction waste and soil from inland sites to in an effort to reclaim coastal lands along Eastern China, according to Li. This activity has been going on for more than a decade without much oversight or concern over damage to marine ecosystems.
Besides enforcing its newly amended Water Pollution Law and a forthcoming Soil Pollution Law, China will undertake the integrated management of rivers and other water bodies that could force officials to maintain and improve water quality or face possible demotion. Cities also will have to improve their management of residential waste and stop imports of foreign plastic and other scrap material under an updated solid waste law, Li said.
The country realizes that its unbalanced advancement based on three decades of rapid economic development led to environmental problems, and under Xi’s green goals, China will solve its environmental problems by 2035, Li Ganjie, minister of environmental protection, said in a March 14 editorial in the People’s Daily.
Xi’s visions for what’s known as “ecological civilization,” his catchall phrase for cleaning up the environment and reaching a point of balancing economic stability and green sustainability, is advancing throughout China. These visions also are inscribed into the country’s constitution.
Including Xi’s concept of ecological civilization in the Constitution has “become a serious binding force for party laws and regulations,” and it’s now one of the party’s main political pursuits, said Chang Jiwen, deputy director of the Institute of Resources and Environmental Policy at the State Council Development Research Center, according to a March 12 report from China Environment News.
Besides a “war on pollution” launched in 2014, Xi has produced an updated Wildlife Protection Law, a ban on ivory imports and production, and a promise for nearly a dozen major national parks to be established by the end of 2020.
In addition, the party’s “red-line” policies seek to restrict development and establish fines for companies that pollute sensitive environments, according to a notice from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Another campaign includes stronger enforcement against illegal mining, forestry, and other activities in protected nature reserves, China’s National Development and Reform Commission said.
“Xi’s rule has witnessed a genuine shift in China’s environmental outlook,” Daniel Gardner, an Andrew Carnegie fellow and professor at Smith College who specializes in the environment in modern China, told Bloomberg Environment.
An intensive propaganda campaign that took over prime-time TV for several days in midsummer, with one night dedicated to his environmental policies, paved the way for what’s known as the Xi Jinping Thought that will be incorporated into the constitution along with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and possibly include his ideas into the preamble.
“I see little reason why environmental progress—at least domestically—should slow under a more authoritarian President Xi,” Gardner said. “In fact, the pace of progress could quicken if those with opposing views, those who, for example, favor economic development measures over environmental measures, go silent.”
The campaign followed an enforcement push, initiated in early 2017, against illegal coal and copper mining operations and illegal small hydropower facilities in the Qilian Mountain Nature Reserve area of Gansu Province in Western China that led to the arrest of 16 people.
They were charged with criminal activity, and the former Communist Party secretary of the province, Wang Sanyun, was expelled from the party. The action triggered investigations in 446 other nature reserves and more than 1,000 arrests, fines, or other punishments for illegal activities in the reserves.
The Qilian Mountain fiasco was the last straw for Xi.
“We recognize that these activities [in nature reserves] are relatively common and widespread,” said Zhou Jinfeng, secretary-general of the China Biodiversity & Green Development Foundation in Beijing.
“We think that illegal mining activities are not single incidents,” Zhou added, detailing discoveries of illegal mining in the Kalamaili and Taxkorgan nature reserves in the Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region. “According to the few cases that we know, we think it is relatively common.”
While the enforcement actions are based on existing laws and regulations that until recently were seldom used, the “national park system, the ecological red-line system, and the ecological compensation system, are establishing entirely new legal systems” that will solidify legal foundations and help with the overall construction of the ecological civilization policies that Xi is pushing, Zhou said.
Xi may have another 20 years to see it to fruition.
“To rush to the conclusion that China’s green revolution could declare victory would underestimate China’s environmental deficit,” Li said. “But with the high pressure he manages to generate, Xi’s campaign might institutionalize some of the changes more effectively than his predecessors did. If this is the case, this round of cleanup will bear more sustainable benefits. Only time will tell if, and to what extent, this hypothesis is valid. But if true, it could be a game changer.”
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