By Michael Lelyveld
China’s environmental inspectors have found a shockingly high number of violations in their crackdown on smog, raising questions about support for the government’s air quality goals.
According to statements from the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), two-thirds of the companies visited in inspections since April were violating emissions rules.
While controversy swirls around President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the effect on greenhouse gas emissions, China’s high rate of environmental violations may spell trouble for the separate issue of visible pollution.
Last month, state media reported that 5,594 firms, or 66.2 percent of those examined by May 2, had failed to comply with environmental standards during a sweep of 28 northern cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.
By May 11, the number of violators had risen to 6,378, or 66.7 percent of the companies inspected, the official Xinhua news agency said.
A new round of inspections in the capital region on May 29 found violations at 79 percent of the visited businesses.
Inspections began last November in response to the smog crisis that stifled northern cities when the winter heating season started.
The nonstop series of smog alerts was blamed on a combination of coal-fired heating, stagnant weather conditions and emissions from steel plants and other factories.
But the reports from the MEP inspections suggest a greater variety of causes behind the air quality crisis and the stunning rates of noncompliance with environmental rules.
The government first dispatched seven inspection teams to track the source of the problems, then added 10 more teams in late December.
In February, inspections were expanded to 18 teams with more than 260 inspectors led by MEP Minister Chen Dining and four deputy ministers. Since then, the reports of violations have climbed.
Twenty-five rounds of national inspections have been promised for the rest of the year. Last week, Chen was appointed to serve as acting mayor of Beijing.
In March, the MEP reported that 3,119 enterprises had faked emissions data out of some 8,500 visited. In numerous cases, inspectors found polluters had restarted operations after ordered shutdowns.
Small firms and factories accounted for more than a third of the violators, making enforcement difficult, Xinhua said.
Officials denied entry
In some cases, officials were denied entry to carry out the inspections.
In one egregious case on March 12, four law enforcement officers were attacked while investigating unauthorized production at a textile plant in eastern Anhui province, the MEP said.
In April, environmental officials were locked inside a boiler plant in central Henan province to keep them from carrying out inspections, the official English-language China Daily reported, citing a report by ThePaper.cn.
By May 20, nearly 3,000 officials had been “held accountable” for the violations, while local authorities assessed fines of 196.3 million yuan (U.S. $28.5 million) in 4,388 cases, Xinhua reported.
As with many issues in China, the official numbers are staggering, difficult to interpret and impossible to verify.
But the reports of such widespread violations suggest that the government’s enforcement of environmental standards has resulted in remarkably little compliance despite years of regulatory efforts and antipollution promises.
The defiance is curious for a country that is viewed as authoritarian, raising questions about how much power the central government actually exercises over local authorities and economic activities.
In the case of air quality, which is the subject of intense public pressure, the numbers also seem to suggest little support from businesses that include state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
It is particularly hard to explain why such a large proportion of companies keep violating the regulations, given years of enforcement efforts, growing smog complaints and months of warnings about pending inspections.
One explanation is that despite all the publicity over smog and inspections, the central government has yet to make air quality an overriding priority or the subject of one its relentless campaigns.
“There has to be a campaign,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, a principal fellow at the Energy Studies Institute of the National University of Singapore.
A campaign is needed if the central government wants to convince provincial and local officials that air quality can no longer be ignored for the sake of economic interests, Andrews-Speed said.
Although the government has increasingly clamped down on polluters and toughened its standards, its enforcement has yet to reach the level of the five-year energy efficiency campaign that culminated in 2010, Andrews-Speed argued.
In the efficiency push promoted by former Premier Wen Jiabao, officials were tasked with reducing energy consumption by 20 percent per unit of gross domestic product compared with 2005.
In May 2010, Premier Wen threatened to punish or fire officials if the efficiency goal was not met. At the end of the year, the authorities made an all-out effort to meet the target, even to the extent of cutting electricity to some factories and homes.
The result was a five-year improvement in the efficiency ratio of 19.1 percent.
Despite the seriousness of the winter smog crisis, the government’s response has stopped short of a comparable campaign.
After years of rewards for favoring economic growth over the environment, local officials are unlikely to rein in pollution unless they are told clearly that their jobs are at stake, Andrews-Speed said in an interview.
Effect of fines on compliance
So far, it is unclear what effect fines have had on compliance.
Xinhua reported on May 12 that MEP inspection teams have been imposing fines directly, but other reports indicate that the central government has been turning violations over to the local authorities to assess penalties.
“The ministry has asked local authorities to shut down businesses or halt production at companies that failed to meet the standards,” Xinhua reported on May 30.
By deferring to local officials on enforcement, the government seems to be leaving the door open for polluting operations to go on.
Judging by the MEP numbers, recent fines may still be seen as little more than a cost of doing business.
Based on Xinhua’s report of May 20, the average fine was less than 45,000 yuan (U.S. $6,533), but the numbers appear at odds with an MEP report in April that fines on enterprises totaled 264 million yuan (U.S. $38 million) in the first quarter alone.
Late last month, President Xi Jinping called for greater antipollution efforts, repeating the now-familiar phrases that the environment should be protected “like one protects one’s eyes” and “as one treats one’s life.”
But Xi did not order tougher penalties or repeat his pledge from March 2015 that polluters would be punished “with an iron hand … with no exceptions.”
Instead, he said more moderately that “the country should adopt a new development philosophy and correctly handle the relationship between economic development and environmental protection,” Xinhua reported.
Several other recent reports have raised questions about the effectiveness of the government’s policies and their impact on industry.
While the government insists it has cut production overcapacity in the high-polluting steel industry, China’s output of crude steel has set back-to-back monthly records in April and March.
Last month, the cabinet-level State Council acknowledged that some steel mills had resumed production during the winter smog crisis after they were ordered to close.
In one troubling defense of the government’s performance on steel manufacturing, the Council said in a statement on May 11 that all facilities producing “inferior-quality steel (reinforcing) bars will be dismantled” throughout the country by the end of June.
The implication that any substandard “rebar” production still exists is likely to be a sore point for survivors of the 2008 earthquake in southwest Sichuan province, where thousands of children are believed to have died in the collapse of shoddily-built schools made with low-quality steel and cement.
In another Xinhua report on May 4, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development said that “about half” of new urban buildings in China will meet “green” construction standards by 2020.
The pledge echoes a commitment made by China “to promote the (50-percent) share of green buildings” as part of a bilateral agreement with the United States on climate change in June 2015.
But the statement raises the question of why all newly constructed city buildings are not required to meet energy-saving standards, or why the government has standards that will not be met.
Andrews-Speed said previous targets for compliance with the building standards have been as low as 10 percent.
“It’s actually an improvement,” he said.