A number of recent disasters and threats to people and the environment, caused by an increasing willingness of local authorities to flout strict central control, are proving to be a major headache for the Beijing regime, The Guardian newspaper reported on 4 December. Land and communities alongside China’s biggest river, the Yangtze, which flows through some of the country’s most densely populated and fertile areas are increasingly threatened by county authorities excavating huge quantities of sand from the river bed, undermining dykes and increasing the risk of floods, the report says.

Big dredgers with suction hoses can collect sand worth 100,000 yuan (US$12,000) in a day, which is transported to the cities and sold to building companies. On 2 December one such vessel collided with a passenger boat sank near the city of Chongqing killing at least nine people. Three provinces have recently banned illegal sand-extraction, so dredgers have moved upstream to other provinces. Many local authorities reportedly ignored Beijing’s ban on dredging during the high-flood season of June to September this year. The city of Guichi in Anhui even staged a ‘sand auction’ in this period.

A drive to shut small heavily polluting oil refineries has also reportedly met with local obstruction. In 1999 the journal China Environmental News commented: “Localism is behind the operation of some small refineries . . . and many wonder whether the crackdown will be effective.”

Two mining accidents at the end of November killed more than 60 workers in Yunnan and Inner Mongolia provinces, and last year nearly 1,200 miners were reported killed in more than 70 recorded accidents, although the full total is thought to be much higher. The mining industry has reportedly consistently defied repeated efforts by Beijing to close down dangerous locally owned mines.

Lax standards are often also the norm in the building industry, which is known for what the Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, calls ‘beancurd construction.’ On 1 December at least eight people died and 32 were injured when a shopping mall collapsed. Workers had allegedly illegally added two extra floors, the local authorities had not approved the building work and neither the designer nor the contractor had a licence.

Recent research shows that local authorities have become much more assertive in the past 20 years. Beijing complains that even when laws are enforced by the courts, local authorities refuse to accept their decisions. More than 850,000 court rulings involving more than 250 billion yuan (US$3 billion) have been frustrated by local action in recent years, a politburo member, Luo Gan, has reportedly complained. Prosecution for violations of environmental standards has only recently been introduced in China and firms are not seriously penalised for missing abatement deadlines if their pollution is not extensive.

Parliament has now approved a plan to standardise laws throughout China so that local authorities cannot protect their interests by special legislation.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie