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Date Posted: 18:45 24/01/2005

Pan handles the environment

Has the environmental watchdog finally grown some teeth?

THE CHINESE government is, we are led to believe, starting to take environmental protection very seriously indeed, and none more so than the intrepid Pan Yue. Last week, the deputy of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) announced at a press conference that the watchdog was suspending the construction of 30 large-scale projects across the country, including a new hydropower plant in Yunnan being built by the Three Gorges Project Corporation (TGPC). The rub, Pan said, was the failure to comply with the Environmental Impact Law, which was implemented in 2003 but for the most part, subsequently ignored. The law stipulates that all projects include an environmental impact assessment in their feasibility studies, and compels them to consult with all those local people affected by, say, the erection of a bloody great dam.

China's News Week magazine this week uses the affair to interview the combative SEPA deputy, whose efforts on behalf of China's environment have even drawn praise from The New York Times.

By way of introduction, the magazine tells us that 'China's environment has already reached its most urgent moment'. Of course, the shit and filth and chemical waste continue to accumulate in almost every river, the forests still wither and die, and the sands of the west inch ever closer, caking the northern rustbelts in films of dust stretching all the way from Gansu to Beijing. The lifeline of the region, the Yellow River, is even drying up, and some experts have predicted that the Yangtze will go the same way within a decade. The skies remain murky and muddy in even the richest of cities. Currently, China's per capita energy consumption rate is far lower than the United States. As it continues to rise along with per capita GDP, expect China's emissions output to exceed the US within a decade or so, and expect even further degradation.

Regulation is difficult, especially when most local governments and enterprises still obsess about growth at all costs. Several reports noted that last week was the first time that SEPA had intervened to stop the construction of prestige projects owned by cosseted national corporations such as the TGPC.

Pan Yue told the press conference last week that many of the projects on the blacklist had to all intents and purposes been completed already, the idea being that by rushing them into operation, a company makes it harder for the government to reject them. Pan said that the agency did not want to see a repetition of the Tieben Iron and Steel scandal of last year, which had been pushed through by the local authorities but then suspended completely, leading to significant economic losses and the firing of several local officials.

Pan Yue, says News Week, was one of China's first environmental reporters, and served as the deputy chief editor of China Youth Daily in the early 1990s before moving into government. That might explain the strong support given by the newspaper to the crusade launched by Pan Yue against polluting companies until it was unceremoniously muzzled and its editor fired .

Pan attracted particular attention in October last year when he presented a lecture entitled 'Environmental Protection and Social Equality'. In the lecture, he said that many rich areas in China were getting richer at the expense of the environment of poorer regions. 'Certain rich people are sacrificing the environment of the majority,' he said. 'Certain regions are sacrificing the environment of other regions. Environmental inequalities are aggravating social inequalities.'

When the magazine asked Pan what the priority should be for those very poor villages who struggle on the lower edge of subsistence, he admitted that protecting the environment was extremely difficult for the poverty-stricken. Naturally, they want to get richer, but with a population of over 1.3 billion, if we allow those poor people to pursue destructive modes of growth, we will destroy the life support system of the whole country.

Setting up an 'ecological compensation system' is what is required, he says. That means paying farmers to plant trees instead of herd cattle, as they have been doing in various western regions.

Still, it might be argued that much of the damage is being done not by the poor peasants, but by huge state-owned enterprises given close to carte blanche by local governments desperate to improve their fortunes. Last week, SEPA tried to make a stand, but it remains to be seen whether a serious shift in the balance of power has been effected, or how far Pan's voice carries in the hierarchy of the Chinese state.

But perhaps we know already: according to a statement issued by SEPA today, several power plants on the blacklist have still not actually stopped construction. While SEPA does not say so, the projects in question seem to be the ones being run by the TGPC and protected by the patronage of the State Council.

Update, 26 January
THE THEORY that Pan Yue has high-profile backers in the Communist Party's Central Committee, and is being used as a pawn in a wider power struggle, seems to have been confirmed by the fact that Premier Wen Jiabao has voiced his support for the SEPA crackdown.

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