BEIJING – China will steer local governments away from the pursuit of economic growth at all costs and beef up their powers to punish polluters as part of a campaign to reverse the damage done by three decades of unchecked expansion.
In wide-ranging economic and social reforms unveiled last week, the ruling Communist Party said it would put more emphasis on environmental protection when assessing officials, and would also hold local authorities directly responsible for pollution.
The document, which also pledged to relax its “one-child policy” and further free up its markets, said China would draw an “ecological protection red line” that would limit the economic development of environmentally vulnerable regions.
Three decades of industrialisation and double-digit growth in China have left the country badly polluted.
With public anger mounting over a series of scandals involving hazardous smog, contaminated soil and toxic water supplies, China has identified the environment as one of the biggest potential sources of instability. But despite a pledge to create a “beautiful China” over the next decade, Beijing continues to struggle to bring polluting state-owned industrial enterprises and growth-obsessed local governments to heel.
The new policy document said China would “correct the bias towards assessing (officials) on the speed of economic growth and increase the weight placed on other indicators such as resource use, environmental damage, ecological benefits, industrial overcapacity, scientific innovation, work safety and newly-added debt.”
China already assesses local officials on the way they handle the environment, but with the economy still considered the priority, local authorities stress their green credentials by building ostentatious national parks, wetlands or reforestation projects rather than address the cause of pollution and risk revenues and jobs.
“Before, they were just using environmental protection as another way of generating economic growth and even if something causes a great deal of immediate environmental damage, they would still consider the short-term economic benefits,” said Zhou Lei at Nanjing University, who studies the impact of industry on the environment.