* Govt officials no longer to be judged solely on economic
* "Unified regulation" pledge could augur stronger ministry
in new year
By David Stanway
BEIJING, Nov 18 China will steer local
governments away from the pursuit of economic growth at all
costs and beef up their powers to punish polluters as part of a
campaign to reverse the damage done by three decades of
In wide-ranging economic and social reforms unveiled last
week, the ruling Communist Party said it would put more emphasis
on environmental protection when assessing officials, and would
also hold local authorities directly responsible for pollution.
The document, which also pledged to relax its "one-child
policy" and further free up its markets, said China would draw
an "ecological protection red line" that would limit the
economic development of environmentally vulnerable regions.
Three decades of industrialisation and double-digit growth
in China have left the country badly polluted.
With public anger mounting over a series of scandals
involving hazardous smog, contaminated soil and toxic water
supplies, China has identified the environment as one of the
biggest potential sources of instability. But despite a pledge
to create a "beautiful China" over the next decade, Beijing
continues to struggle to bring polluting state-owned industrial
enterprises and growth-obsessed local governments to heel.
The new policy document said China would "correct the bias
towards assessing (officials) on the speed of economic growth
and increase the weight placed on other indicators such as
resource use, environmental damage, ecological benefits,
industrial overcapacity, scientific innovation, work safety and
China already assesses local officials on the way they
handle the environment, but with the economy still considered
the priority, local authorities stress their green credentials
by building ostentatious national parks, wetlands or
reforestation projects rather than address the cause of
pollution and risk revenues and jobs.
"Before, they were just using environmental protection as
another way of generating economic growth and even if something
causes a great deal of immediate environmental damage, they
would still consider the short-term economic benefits," said
Zhou Lei at Nanjing University, who studies the impact of
industry on the environment.
THE POWER TO PUNISH
The Communist Party document also pledged to improve the way
environmental rules are enforced by establishing a more
"unified" central government authority and by eliminating
Experts expect China to strengthen the powers of the
environmental ministry as part of a wider government department
reshuffle likely to take place during the annual session of
parliament in March next year.
Officials, including vice-environment minister Pan Yue, have
complained that the current regime lacks teeth, partly because
many crucial environmental responsibilities are dispersed across
a wide range of departments.
Next year's reshuffle could see the environment ministry
taking on responsibilities currently held by the State Forestry
Commission, the Ministry of Water Resources as well as the
powerful planning superministry, the National Development and
Reform Commission, none of which consider environmental
protection a priority.
The pledges made in last week's document will also be
bolstered by amendments to the country's environmental
protection laws, which are expected to be published soon and
will give environmental agencies a range of new powers to fine
and punish serial violators, as well as improve the way Beijing
monitors pollution across the country.
But Zhou of Nanjing University said the new rules are
unlikely to go far enough.
"In my opinion, it is typical Chinese lip service and should
not be treated seriously," he said. "What will really solve the
current environmental degradation is to systematically
re-appraise all the problematic projects and let justice be
served regarding all the perpetrators."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)