By Zheng Jinran and Tian Xuefei in Harbin and Li Yingqing in Kunming
Central government inspectors blitzed local authorities last year, promoting greater transparency and solving long-standing problems. Zheng Jinran reports from Beijing, with Tian Xuefei in Harbin and Li Yingqing in Kunming.
The New Year saw northern China shrouded in a cloud of thick smog that sent air pollution to hazardous levels and resulted in more than 60 cities imposing joint emergency measures, such as the suspension of manufacturing activity, to reduce emissions of noxious gases.
In addition to short-term emergency measures, the central government last year strengthened supervision of policymakers by introducing environmental inspections conducted by high-level cadres.
The inspections have become a powerful weapon in the fight against pollution, in tandem with a number of long-term measures and environmentally-friendly policies adopted by the central government.
The teams of central inspectors, headed by ministerial-level cadres, debuted during a month-long inspection in Hebei province on Jan 4 last year. The 16 teams of investigators conducted inspections in 16 provinces and regions, completing the final round of inspections on Dec 30, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
By the same date, 720 people had been detained on charges of polluting the environment, and fines were levied totaling more than 441 million yuan ($63 million), the ministry said.
However, rather than simply punishing polluting companies, the focus has now shifted to investigating the actions of local governments to "highlight the major roles played by policy-makers in environmental issues", said Chen Jining, the environment minister.
The inspections in July saw more than 40,000 people at both the central and local levels participate in a campaign that focused on the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Henan, and Yunnan, and the Ningxia Hui, Inner Mongolia and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous regions.
From late November, the inspection teams visited seven more areas - the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and provinces of Hubei, Guangdong, Shaanxi and Gansu.
By the end of this year, central-level inspections will cover every province, autonomous region and municipality, according to Chen.
The high-level inspection teams, a development ordered by State Council, China's Cabinet, play a similar role to that of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the nation's top anti-graft watchdog, which regulates the activities of government officials and weeds out corruption.
Last year, the inspectors launched a large-scale "accountability storm" targeting government officials after some key leaders, who should play major roles in environmental protection, failed to fulfill their responsibilities.
Unlike officials from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which usually conducts pollution checks, the central inspectors have greater power to hold talks with leading provincial officials. In July, for example, they spoke with 195 provincial leaders to gauge their effectiveness in the fight against pollution.
Additionally, the teams investigated reports filed by the public via a phone hotline and special email box, and conducted field investigations into the issues that attracted the most attention.
In the 16 inspected regions, including several industrialized and well-developed areas, the inspectors exposed details of long-standing problems in full, thus emphasizing the central government's determination to improve the environment, according to experts.
The teams were allowed to speak frankly with local governments to examine problems that had been swept under the carpet.
For example, even though the measures adopted by Zhengzhou, a city in Henan province, failed to achieve the 2015 target for the reduction of air pollution, the city government's efforts received a favorable assessment. That was because the local assessors had failed to understand the importance of environmental protection, said Wang Wanbin, head of the central inspection team that visited the province.
Similar neglect and weak implementation of anti-pollution measures were also exposed in other provinces. For example, in 2007, the Yunnan provincial government published the Regulation on the Protection of Fuxian Lake, a well-known beauty spot.
However, despite the guidelines, a large number of illegal buildings such as hotels, apartments and villas with a combined floor area of 140,000 square meters, were constructed inside the protection zone. They were still on sale during the inspections.
Yang Chunming, deputy head of the Yunnan provincial environmental protection bureau, said the province established special teams to solve problems immediately after receiving the inspectors' report.
"We have conducted a wide-ranging investigation into the illegal construction around Fuxian Lake," Yang said, adding that any other problems uncovered should be treated equally seriously.
Zhang Benxing, a 73-year-old resident of Guilin, a city in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, said local people had frequently reported illegal quarrying, which released high levels of dust into the area around the Lijiang River, a famous scenic spot, but the problem was not solved until the arrival of the central inspection team.
In the weeks that followed, 37 officials at the county and city levels were deemed responsible for the pollution caused by the illegal quarrying and for failing to prevent it.
In addition, other issues were highlighted, including the insufficient attention local governments paid to environmental protection and the excessive exploitation of natural resources.
According to the inspectors, some regions have experienced environmental degradation, such as declines in the quality of air, water and soil, pointing to areas where the provinces need to improve.
After the inspections, more than 6,400 government officials were held accountable for the poor quality of their anti-pollution work, resulting in punishments including suspensions, public criticism and lost promotions, according to the ministry.
"From the problems exposed by the inspectors, we can see that they played hard when they monitored local governments. That prompted policymakers to work harder to prevent pollution instead of focusing solely on economic growth," said Qin Tianbao, professor of environmental law at Wuhan University in Hubei province.
The performances of local governments have improved in the wake of the inspections, especially after officials witnessed the punishments meted out to their peers, so the irregular inspection mechanism needs to become a long-term measure, Qin said. "It would be better if there were laws to back up the inspections, " he added.
The central inspections were conducted in accordance with trial regulations released by the State Council in July.
Many areas - such as Henan province and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region - have now set up their own inspection and investigation teams to provide effective pollution control.
Chang Jiwen, deputy director of the Institute for Resources and Environment Policies at the State Council's development research center, a high-level think tank, said the large number of cases uncovered indicated that progress has been made. He urged the central inspection teams to focus more on the activities of members of provincial and city governments.
"Instead of punishing environmental officials at the grassroots level, the teams should focus on leading policymakers in the provinces who have a far greater influence on environmental policy," he said.
Messages left on the hotline and special email box exposed more than 26,000 heavily polluting companies, whose details were passed on to the relevant governments. That resulted in the imposition of strict punishments, such as heavy fines and more than 20,000 businesses being ordered to suspend production.
"The strict investigations provided solutions to many long-standing thorny problems," said Chang, from the development research center.
In one case, a pharmaceutical factory in Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia, was reported 80 times during the one-month inspection period because of the pungent odor it released.
"Environment bureaus at the city and autonomous region levels had punished the plant 29 times, using a combination of administrative penalties and short periods of detention, but it remained in production, generating the smell," according to a statement released by the autonomous region's government.
Following the inspections, the local government conducted a thorough investigation, which resulted in two people at the plant being detained and production being suspended, the statement added.
Ma Yong, an environmental law researcher at the Supreme People's Court legal center, said the administrative punishments levied have not been strong enough to curb the activities of some polluters. However, the work of the central-level inspectors had helped the local government to impose tougher controls to rein in polluters. The measures have brought the problem under control in some regions.
Ma said it would be helpful if local governments adopted legal measures against pollution, such as fully implementing the revised Environmental Protection Law, instead of relying on short-term inspections.
Zhang Xiaode, director of the Ecological Civilization Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Governance, said the inspections had been effective and sent out a signal that the environment is related to social and economic growth.
The investigations have also helped the central and local governments to formulate solutions to problems, resulting in more effective efforts to improve the environment, he added.
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