Chinese official urges eco-action but people apathetic

The vast majority of Chinese people think pollution is harming their health but few know how to report an environmental incident, nor would they bother doing so if they did.

According to a survey carried out by China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), which interviewed almost 5,000 people in cities all over the country, over 10% of urban dwellers and 7.5% of their rural counterparts believe their living environment is unfit for habitation.

Yes despite this, less than a quarter of those questioned knew how to get in touch with SEPA and most appeared to doubt environmental issues would ever derail the ingrained growth-at-all-costs mentality prevalent in local officialdom.

86% said they thought the environment had a negative impact of their health, with air and water quality and food safety topping their list of concerns but only a tiny fraction had bothered to involve themselves in any environmental protection activity.

The needs of the economy and the needs of the environment were seen as opposing forces with the country’s growth seen as the main priority of officials.

The publication comes in the same week as state-owned newspaper the China Daily ran a lengthy interview with Pan Yue, the recently promoted vice-minister of SEPA who is seen as something of an eco-warrior in China.

The interview provides an insight into top-level thinking on the environment, and how the country sees its own environmental performance in the global arena.

Mr Pan subtly criticised developed countries for developing their economies first then worrying about the environment once established and claimed a similar model would not work for China, which would ‘never practice any form of eco-colonialism’ by ‘[transferring] the cost of its pollution to the rest of the world’.

He also summed up the unease of developing states being told by the industrialised world not to repeat its mistakes when he spoke of Western countries having ‘completed their primitive capital accumulation and established a series of international rules in their favour’ – possibly referring to international agreements such as the Kyoto protocol and the BAN arrangement governing the trans-boundary shipment of hazardous waste.

Instead, he claimed, China would pursue sustainable growth and environmentally-friendly development.

He acknowledged that at present environmental protection laws were being ignored by developers and industrialists but he blamed this on local interests, rather than central policy, and said a new set of rules was needed to make enforcement a real threat.

“The mild environment management and legal measures we once used in the past have proven ineffective,” he said.

“Therefore we need to explore new ways of management.”

Among these, he said, would be plans to assess the environmental standards of districts as part of the overall evaluation of their performance, a key driver for Chinese officials which might help national aspirations filter down to local government.

Sam Bond

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