The Chinese Pollution Problem and the Politics of "Airpocalypse"

By Vikrant Bhatnagar
2014, Vol. 6 No. 01 | pg. 2/3 |

Public Health

With more pollution in the air, the effect on public health, consequently, has been devastating. From the Global Burden of Disease Study reporting the premature death of 1.2 million people to 4,000 children contracting asthma due to the horrendous air pollution, the picture gets grimmer. In the past ten years, there has been an increase of “60 per cent”39 in the number of pneumonia cases that were reported in Beijing. Furthermore, at the onset of 2009, the National Population and Family planning commission released a gruesome statistic that “every thirty seconds, a baby with birth defects is born due to pollution or dietary habits in China and that the number of birth defects is constantly increasing in both rural and urban areas”40. On November 5, 2013, an 8 year old girl was diagnosed with lung cancer in the Jiangsu Province of China41. This is something unheard of and doctors attribute her lung cancer to the dirty air42. In a separate study, a group of doctors analyzed the correlation between atmospheric pollution and birth defects over a five-year span, and concluded that “atmospheric pollution accounts for 10 percent of all birth defects in China”43, with the highest rate coming from regions where coal is the primary industry.

Widespread pollution has also lead to villages like Liukuaizhuang, seventy-five miles south of Beijing, to being “dubbed a “cancer village” by local media in 2008 after one in fifty residents was diagnosed with cancer over the past decade”44. The increase in the diagnosis of cancer is over ten times the national rate for cancer45. Liukuaizhuang was “surrounded by rubber, chemical, and paint plants that all dump waste containing mercury and lead into the air and water”46, and villagers developed cancer from breathing hazardous air and drinking polluted water. Cancer villages like Liukuaizhuang are not few and far between. The commonality of these villages begs the question, what is being done to prevent them from cropping up.

Absence of Enforcement & Corruption

According to Elizabeth Economy, author of The River Runs Black, half of the environmental challenge in China is enforcement of previously passed laws. In other words – the lack of enforcement. The way the punitive system is setup in China, “repeated violations do not necessarily result in additional fines”47. This incentivizes companies that are serious polluters into paying a minimal fine, rather than changing their course of action and business model to eliminate pollution from the source. Pollution fines are viewed simply as an additional cost of doing business in China.

An incentive system for government officials who are in charge of implementing these rules and regulations is also absent. “In the environmental arena, however, there are few incentives, economic or otherwise, for local officials to carry out the initiatives of the central government… [as] both local environmental protection officials and local judicial authorities are beholden to the local governments for their funding”48. It is a double-edged sword for local officials, shall they enforce rules and potentially thwart economic growth in their localities or turn a blind eye towards environment and keep their jobs and bureaus afloat.

To make matters worse, the lack of enforcement by government officials is bypassed by another mechanism – bribery of officials. Yan Sun, author of Corruption and Market in Contemporary China, states that “bribes are paid for two reasons: to obtain government benefits and to avoid costs”49. In many cases, those two reasons go in tandem and it allows for heavy polluters to go on polluting unscathed. As the Chinese government “imposes regulations, levies taxes, and enforces laws, it creates such costs as regulatory barriers, tax burdens, and delayed services”50. This then leads to corruption, as companies that are willing to jump through hoops are bypassed by companies that use loopholes, and in commerce, time wasted is money lost.

Joseph Fewsmith, author of The Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China, states that there is an “understanding that local officials can pursue their private interests- often through corruption- as long as they accomplish the goals set for them by the higher levels”51, which include emphasis on economic development as power “revolves almost entirely around GDP growth”52. In an emerging market like China, globalization and openness to foreign countries and the lure for more profits have stalled the crackdown against corruption, and in essence, bribery and corruption have become another price of doing business in China53.

It is in China’s interest to double down and strengthen its enforcement of laws that would do a better job of environmental protection. In 2010, the “cost of environmental degradation in China was about $230 billion… or 3.5 percent of the gross domestic product”54. In addition, in 2003, air pollution that had precipitated as acid rain “caused 30 billion yuan ($4.39 billion) in crop damages and 7 billion yuan ($1.02 billion) in damage to buildings”55. As one approaches the root cause of the lack of enforcement, two questions arise: Is it the disregard of rules that leads to a laissez faire enforcement of rules and regulations, or is it the lack of enforcement that entices people to disregard the rules and regulations? The answer is — both.

Decentralization & Local Enforcement

China has a long history with the contradiction between centralization and decentralization. Every dynasty has come to power as highly centralized. But centralization stifled economic growth56. The dynastic cycle includes a period of decentralization which is instituted to spur economic growth and amounts to the “second founding” of dynasties57. In the People’s Republic of China, the second founder was Deng Xiaoping58. Decentralization, however, tends to create power in the localities and weaken the power in the center59. The result is policies that are vague general principles (fangzhen), rather than the specific policies instituted by localities (zhengce)60. For example, a disregard for rules is explained by ambiguity in the laws passed in Beijing, and these laws are then exploited by companies and officials who the wield power to enforce these rules61. In 2002, the State Planning Commission “outlawed 238 types of car levies across the country”62 and this reduction equated to one-fifth of total levies that were then levied on cars in all Chinese provinces. Out of 238 outlawed levies, the residents of Beijing had only, “one vehicle levy eliminated, a forty-yuan ‘motor vehicle safety fee’”63. The disconnect between the central and local governments has created confusion among the citizens, and opened many loopholes that, in turn, have lead to the chronic problems of bribery and corruption.

The division and disconnect between local and central governments has formed a hierarchy in which the central government forms rules with broad brush strokes and lets the local officials decide on the finer points of a particular rule and regulation. ‘“When the above has a policy, the below has a counter-policy,’ that is, the local governments play ‘hide and seek’ with the central government”64, and in the previous case, when 238 levies were banned, the citizens of Beijing saw the outlaw of one. Former mayor of Shenyang, Mu Suixin, “put it more bluntly: ‘Central decrees and regulations will have to be adapted once they reach me. I implement the ones I approve, and I do not implement the ones I disapprove’”65. This leads to a system where the local officials have too much power and are placed in a system that lacks checks and balances. This, in turn, leads to “unequally enforced”66 rules and regulations. In addition, the onus is on the administrative agencies, not the judiciary67, to implement environmental laws, so the measures taken by them lack punitive backing, which fails to instill fear in the serious and repeat environmental offenders.

Organizational Maze

Under a system of dual rule (shuang shuang lingdao), China hoped to share control between the center and the localities68. This has served to further blur the threads of hierarchy: China’s bureaucracy is based on the interplay between two models of hierarchy – tiao-tiao and a kuai-kuai – that are the basis for the flow of information and commands. Vertical rule, or tiao-tiao “means that an agency has full policy and operational control over all units of organization within its jurisdiction. Commands flow directly down; information comes directly up”69. Horizontal rule, or kuai-kuai “means control over any unit, at any level, in any functional setting, exercised by the local government, typically the province, even if that government has full policy and operational control over all units of organization with its jurisdiction”70. Both tiao-tiao and a kuai-kuai were to rule in a dual control fashion (shuang shuang lingdao). The binding force holding tiao-tiao and kuai-kuai in check are the officials who comprise a supposed unified Communist Party71. With commands coming from various directions, officials have a tough time deciding which ones to follow. Paul Schroeder, in his dissertation, Regional Power in China states that tiao-tiao and kuai-kuai have become muddled over time. The defining characteristic of Dual Rule is the “problem of allocation of authority between central and regional government”72, in essence, a power struggle between the central authority in Beijing, and its decentralized counterparts in the local and regional bureaus.

For some, China's bureaucracy can be described as a “maze of central ministries and provincial or municipal departments, each with bureaus and sub-bureaus, with each of those having their own departments, sub-departments, and sections that defy simple organizational charts”73. Schroeder continues this sentiment as he states that the “unpredictability of bureaucratic behavior comes, in part, from a lack of institutionalization of China's political and bureaucratic system as evident by the lack of binding rules on policy implementation, the vague policy guidelines promulgated by the Center, and the uneven results of policy implementation”74. From the lack of binding rules, to vague policy guidelines, to the uneven implementation of rules and regulations, this triumvirate of problems is evident from our past discussion of levies on car pollution and the infiltration of corruption to the organization of society.

To battle this three-headed monster and manage the implementation of environmental rules and regulations is the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and its regional and local bureaus. The dearth of enforcement rules is further compounded as the MEP is understaffed to undertake the implementation of rules and regulations, while combatting corruption and bribery from within. The Beijing Headquarters of the MEP has a meager 300 employees and an approximate of 30 employees at regional offices, with an aggregate of 60,000 employees at the local levels75. For example, the local and regional offices that have to enforce the rules and regulation passed by the central government. “While general policy is made in Beijing, sometimes local leaders' work is policy. We call this tu zhengce, local policy, or xiuzi zhengce, shirt sleeve policy. This [policy] is spoken and never written”76. The ambiguity in the rules leaves it up to the regional and local offices to interpret and implement the rules. And those offices are understaffed. For example, the Environmental Protection Office in Jianghan District of Wuhan, which is one of the fourteen districts in Wuhan, had only two employees, neither of which had any training in environmental sciences77.

To make matters worse, environmental lawyer Wang Canfa states, “barely 10 percent of China’s environmental laws and regulations are enforced”78, the onus clearly falls on the regional offices to establish and maintain standards. This poses, yet, another question, is it the lack of financial support from the central governmental that causes an inefficient administration of rules? From 2001 to 2010, China allocated a meager 1.3 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP)79 towards environmental protection, and many environmental experts believe this number should be a lot higher. Some estimate the effort will cost approximately 3 percent of the GDP80 to keep the environment from deteriorating even further.

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