Friday, 25 April 2014

Why China’s Pollution Laws are Merely Words on Paper


Article and image editing by Chris Harry

It is hugely ironic that ever since Premier Li Keqiang has declared war on pollution back in March the pollution in China's capital has steadily grown worse. 

Since January of this year, days at 200+ levels on the PM 2.5 index are the norm rather than the exception. This means that Beijing's air quality is regularly 20 times higher than the level that the WHO considers a health hazard. On many so-called "sunny" days here in the heart of the China Dream, the skies are often dingy and enveloped under a glowing grey of thick haze.

The reality on the ground is that pollution continues to worsen here in Beijing and in the rest of the country. Another reality in China is that many, if not most laws, are either not actually enforced or are enforced inconsistently at best. Laws in China are often only applied arbitrarily to the benefit of government officials and to the detriment of its citizens.


The current anti-corruption campaign is a perfect example of this. It is simply a 'campaign' and not the consistent application and adherence to any laws. The only likely concrete result of the anti-corruption campaign will be the transfer of money stolen from taxpayers by some targeted officials from rival party factions to other corrupt officials allied to the new leadership. Under the current system, which has no independent monitoring or judiciary, laws simply become tools in the hands of officials to enrich themselves, remove political rivals, deny citizens the right to monitor, protest or interfere with their interests and to consolidate their own power.

As things stand now, polluting factories will simply give bribes to get around legislation and the central government will likely neither enforce nor supervise the rules in any meaningful way. Regional government leaders will also avoid enforcement in order to increase the profits of local industry and to enhance their GDP growth track records whilst pocketing graft money from local polluters. 


In addressing the lack of results on the anti-pollution front the central government mainly blames regional governments (its favourite scapegoat) for causing the problem, but then fails to act to intervene or prevent 'regional pollution', which means the responsibility ultimately lies with Beijing. What is more, the levels of air and water pollution in the capital also speak to the lack of sincerity on the part of China’s central government to tackle pollution. Meanwhile, the majority of China’s top ten most polluted cities surround the larger region around the capital, which clearly demonstrates a lack of will or ability on the part of China’s national leaders to take concerted action to stem the tide of steadily rising pollution. 


Back in February, the local Beijing government failed to enact its own emergency measures when air pollution had risen to red alert levels of over 500 on the PM 2.5 index, so it does not appear that China’s central government is even committed to enforcing its own laws consistently. Therefore, it is fair to ask why regional governments would take state laws seriously. If central leaders consistently flout national laws and regulations, then why should regional leaders be expected to respect anti-pollution legislation? In fact, Beijing stands as the key obstacle to the enforcement of laws to actually curb pollution. A one hundred percent monopoly on power unavoidably translates into one hundred percent responsibility for the destruction of China's environment.


The most compelling evidence to suggest that ‘sweeping’ new laws will likely fail to have a great impact can be seen from the government’s past record on 'fighting' pollution. China has already enacted a whole range of laws and regulations to curb pollution in recent decades, yet the pollution continues to worsen as the environmental crisis continues to deepen. 


Laws have to be enforced in order to have any real effect. As long as China remains a corrupt country without a viable rule of law, anti-pollution laws are simply empty words on paper. The smog is very real and so far the implementation of anti-pollution legislation appears to be merely an illusory phantom with about as much substance as Emperor Xi’s China Dream.