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Stopping the Pollution Pipeline

As China vows to tackle its pervasive environmental pollution, the nationwide system of environmental inspections has been hailed as a real reform, although whether it can bring about systemic change remains to be seen

By NewsChina Updated May.3

China’s new emphasis on environmental inspection is starting to pay dividends, after the central government acted to curb pollution from private enterprises in 2015. In the 2018 Report on the Work of China’s Government, released in early March during the annual two sessions, China’s top legislative meetings, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang emphasized the importance of “implementing central government environmental inspection, and strictly investigating all illegal cases that cause pollution.” 

With four major rounds of inspections in July and November 2016, and then in April and August 2017, all 31 provinces and regions in China were inspected. At the end, 29,000 private enterprises were penalized, fines totaling 1.43 billion yuan (US$22.76m) were levied, 1,527 people were taken into custody due to violations of the 2015 Environment Protection Law, and 18,199 officials were publicly named for being responsible.  

Environmental inspections launched by the Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) in the past had focused on enterprises rather than local governments, resulting in inefficiency in tackling pollution issues.  

On July 1, 2015, the central government “leading group” dedicated to deepening reform passed a trial version of the new Environmental Protection Inspection Measures, listing local governments in areas with chronic ongoing environmental problems as primary targets for inspection. Party and government officials in each province or city are held responsible for misdeeds in this regard. Inspection results would be used as a significant indicator for the official’s job performance evaluation during his or her office.  

In the last two years, provinces and regions have implemented or revised their ecological and environmental protection policies and regulations. In 2018, the second round of the central government environmental inspection will start, with a focus on the review process, as well as on assisting local governments to establish a provincial-level environmental inspection system, which will put in place a long-term, effective system of environmental inspection.  

Tough Questions 

The inspection team normally conducts a month-long inspection within a province. In 2016, according to Yu Guodong, Deputy Director of the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing Municipality, the fifth inspection team did not even take weekends off during its 30-day stay.  

Liu Changgen, senior MEP official in charge of China’s environmental inspection process, told media that it involves three key stages. 
First is the provincial-level inspection which lasts around 10 days, mainly targeting setting up talks with provincial or regional leaders to address environmental problems. Additional work includes reviewing official files, visiting environment departments and receiving public petitions. For example, during the inspection tour to Hebei Province, 26 provincial-level officials were invited for talks, including the province’s Party secretary, governor, and recently retired officials who were responsible for the legacy of pollution. Talks included direct and tough questions such as “what are the key environmental problems in your province, and who should bear the responsibility for them?” 

Yu told NewsChina during a recent interview that the inspection team did talk with all key leaders from every associated department while they were in Chongqing. “If the team uncovered a problem, they would have a second round of talks with the official until things were cleared up.”  

The second stage takes another 10 days at the local city level. If problems come to light in the first stage, the inspection team heads straight to the main city in the area identified to double check the situation, and if necessary, decides who should be held accountable. 
Before the central inspection team arrives in the region, Liu said, some inspectors would go ahead, either in an official capacity, or incognito, to learn about the situation and ask for public input. They create a list of problems and write a manual for the inspection team to use as a reference.  

Yu said that normally, if local environmental authorities receive a complaint, the inspection team is obliged to resolve it within a designated timeframe. Information about the problem and the solution should be publicly released. NewsChina learned that in the first round of inspections, 104,000 complaints were received nationwide and by October 2017, 102,000 complaints had been dealt with. Among the total cases, some 80,000 were related to garbage, air pollution, noise, pollution from firms and sewage discharge.  

With this intense level of supervision, local governments had to up their responses. Pan Biling, deputy director for the environmental bureau of Hunan Province told NewsChina that his province designated six different teams to respond and investigate complaints from the public during the central inspection team’s visit. 
The final stage is accountability. Within months, the central inspection team will reflect upon and give feedback on the problems in different provinces. Liu Changgen explained that the inspection report focuses on laying out the problems and defining who should be held accountable. These findings have also been made public. 
At a press conference held by the MEP in late 2017, the most prevalent problems during the first round of inspections included air and water pollution, insufficient environmental infrastructure, illegal construction in nature reserves, over-exploitation of water resources, industrial pollution and rural environmental degradation. 
According to the central government’s requirements, provinces must respond with action plans within 30 working days to present to the State Council, China’s cabinet. 
Both the action plan and the plan to implement it must be made public. The plan is followed up by giving detailed measures, deadlines and targets, and designated officials must take charge of putting it into action.  

Local Party officials are responsible for implementing the plan at the local level, and should report to the provincial government. The successful implementation of the plan is listed as a key performance indicator for these officials. 
“The central environmental inspection includes other sectors apart from the environmental department, so anyone who neglects their duty will be penalized,” Liu said. The scope covers all local governments, State-owned enterprises, local communities, forestry departments and water departments, as well as the agriculture, urban planning, transportation, public security and tourism sectors, and more besides. 

Who Is Accountable?  

According to the central government’s plan, in 2018, it will assist local governments to set up their own provincial environmental inspection system to ensure long-term compliance and outcomes. 

Yet, while this intense level of environmental inspections has already become routine, there are still many problems in implementation and in achieving the desired results. 

The key is how to systemize the implementation of the environmental protection initiative in a lasting manner. Pan Biling pointed out that controlling pollution cannot be completely achieved through the accountability system – in the long term, reliable finance and project governance is needed. Apart from enhanced government investment, the private sector and society in general must be involved. Currently, the heaviest pressure is on local environmental governance. 
“In many places, securing basic livelihoods is already difficult for local governments, so how can they earn extra money for environmental protection? Pressure from the central government is no good for those places,” said Pan, adding that the government should give more financial support to implement environmental protection initiatives. Local governments are undertaking industrial readjustment to lower pollution, said Yu Guodong. This requires more support and guidance to develop a local green economy, with policy support, financial subsidies and other coordination and planning. 
A holistic system to tackle environmental problems is yet to form. “The environment will only be improved if the country can make significant changes in aspects such as system mechanism and financial investment,” Pan said.