Green GDP Mired In Red Tape -Source (Q&A)

Green GDP graph.jpg
A week ago, domestic newspapers broke the news that the National Statistics Bureau is balking on plans to publicize China’s second Green GDP report. This was not altogether shocking, since the country’s first estimates of the costs of environmental degradation, based on 2004 data, only came out in September 2006 – after much delay, cutting, number fudging (See here or here). Still, the 2005 data was expected to be issued around this time. But instead the NBS decided it was better to pass the report under the table to the State Council, and sent a letter notifying the State Environmental Protection Agency, its partners in the Green GDP effort, about the change. The rationale the NBS offered, reported the 21st Century Business Herald(21‰∏ñÁ∫™ÁªèʵéÊä•ÈÅì), which first broke the news, was that Green GDP accounting remained “theoretically and methodologically immature; internationally controversial; and practically speaking, very difficult to execute.” A source told the Herald: “‘Because of this they recommended [the report] not be made public.'”

But that was more of an excuse than an explanation, according to an official source involved in the Green GDP project. The source tells CDT that the immediate motives of the NBS, particularly its new director Xie Fuzhan (Ë∞¢‰ºèÁûª), were to pass the buck of responsibility and avoid shaming local authorities – as some Chinese news reports have hinted. Once again, says the source, intergovernmental frictions are slowing down the Green GDP campaign and complicating Beijing’s to integrating its green goals into its overall blueprint of “scientific development”. The politics surrounding Green GDP work are particularly tense, says the source, ahead of the 17th Party Congress later this year.

Portions of our conversation with the source (O) follow:.

B: So what exactly happened?
O: It was very sudden. The week before last, the Statistics Bureau suddenly said they were bowing out. They weren’t going to release the report.

B: Why?
O: It appears that this has a lot to do with the a new bureau chief. He’s an official (ÂÆòÂëòÔºâ, not a technocrat ÔºàÊäÄÊúØÂÆòÂÉöÔºâ. The Green GDP really makes the provinces and cities look bad. Let’s say they have ten percent growth, but because of pollution and wasted resources they lose four percent of it; then their GDP growth is effectively reduced to six percent, if you figure that way. Currently, these officials’ assessment are still based almost purely on local GDP growth. But the new Statistics Bureau chief is afraid he’s going to end up offend a lot of local governments. He doesn’t want that responsibility. So he decided that his Bureau was not going to issue the report. Any cadre in China can understand how this thinking. Basically, he has pushed the responsibility onto the State Council.


B: How did the news get out?
O: Domestic reporters dug it out themselves. All along, these departments had said that the report would be released to the public soon after the “Two Meetings” [of legislature, in March]. So when the Two Meetings passed and there was no news, the reporters went around asking The best story was in the 21st Economic Herald. The Statistics Bureau wrote a letter to Environment Protection basically saying, ‘Sorry, this method of accounting are not scientific.’ The 21st Century report leaked this letter. But it was an excuse. [The paper] talked about the local opposition but didn’t really write about how the Statistics Bureau guy wants to duck responsibility and fears offending the localities. Neither bureau is commenting now. They don’t want to offend one another either.

B: So what’s the State Council going to do?
O: It’s unclear right now. The State Council official directly in charge of this matter is Zeng Peiyan http://english.people.com.cn/data/people/zengpeiyan.shtml But it so happens he’s been on an official tour abroad [to Australia, New Zealand, et al.] the past week. Environmental Protection wrote him a letter too. They have the full Green GDP report in their hands. But without the Statistics Bureau’s consent, they cannot publish it. Environmental Protection still potentially could publish certain data on the direct losses from pollution. But it cannot put out anything on the broader economic impact.

B: Was did the letter to the State Council say? Did they complain?
O: You can’t quite call it a complaint. They stood by the methods as and recommended that the report still be made public. If it’s not made public, then there’s no pressure on anyone to do anything about it. So they want to publicize the report and the rankings of at least the top ten.

B: The top ten polluting provinces?
O: No, no. Not the worst provinces. The best. In the report for 2004 [last year], none of the individual rankings were published So in the one [this year] for 2005, the idea was to publish just the top ten. That way it would give local governments more constructive form of incentive.

B: And the Statistics Bureau had agreed to this too?
O: Yes.

B: Which provinces came out ahead?
O: I’m not sure. It’s hard for me to say what the overall figures were. But the figures [for losses] in 2005 should definitely be higher than last year. There were some scientific adjustments and more factors were included. So actually the second report should be at least more accurate than the first.

B: What about the worst? Last year, according to what we’ve discussed, it was Hebei.
O: The worst, I can tell you, was Ningxia province. From this you can see a disturbing trend. Originally, Ningxia was not a heavy polluting province. It was not an industrial province. But now a lot of industry is spreading into to the western regions. The coastal provinces like Zhejiang and Jiangsu have a lot of money so they can they modernize. But then they move their old factories and industry to the West. And the pollution goes West with it So the Western provinces are especially unwilling to go along with the Green GDP. All this time, they’ve had the pressure to expand GDP and develop like the East. But now they have twin pressures.

B: The Green GDP project has been around three years. Why is the work are still so sensitive? Is it any secret anymore where the environment is bad? Haven’t these local governments lost face enough?
O: Even if they have already lost face, they’ll say, ‘How can you make me lose face if I have none to start with?’!

…As you know, the main political factor is official assessments. They are based almost exclusively on local GDP growth. Of course there’s been all this talk the past two years about rolling the Green GDP and environmental and energy goals into official assessments. But it’s still talk. It hasn’t been implemented yet. If it does, then that could directly hurt GDP growth figures. So of course the opposition from local governments persists.

…Another point is that the circumstances are rather special this year, because of the 17th Party Congress. All these top officials are thinking about the personnel reshuffling – whether they will be promoted and where they will be moved. So they worry about every little thing that might affect that. If the Green GDP figures come out and they reflects badly on them, they think that could be the difference between gaining promotion or not.

…With the Green GDP, there are games are being played on two levels. One is the local government and the central government. The other is between Statistics and Environmental Protection. What’s interesting is that the conflicts of interest on one level affect the conflicts of interest on another.

B: Under [former stats chief] Qiu Xiuhua, there was also a lot opposition but in the end the basic data was published. What’s the difference with Xie Fuzhan?
O: First of all, the Statistics Bureau a vice-ministry level (ÂâØÈÉ®Á∫ß)department of government. It is not like Environmental Protection, which is on a par with provinces. So Xie is not on equal footing with provincial leaders to start. He’s a half position lower. Qiu might not have cared as much about that as much, though. He was more of an intellectual. He was a technocrat. So he saw himself as more of a scholar. He had ideals about how to help the country progress. So you can’t judge him just by his personal problems. But Xie is more of a bureaucrat. Although he started out at the People’s Daily, he’s not a journalist or technocrat. After a few years he went to the State Council’s Development Research Center. He worked his way up to deputy director. But he not Hu [Jintao]‘s man and he’s not Wen [Jiabao]‘s man. He’s just depends on himself. He’s only in charge of the Statistics Bureau because Qiu fell off the horse. If you’re an official in China, the more you’re on your own, the more you have to fear.

B: The Green GDP is not an official central government program?
O: Not really. It came out in 2004 in line with Hu Jintao’s requirements for scientific development. But this is SEPA’s own initiative with the Statistics Bureau. Now it’s possible again that the Statistics Bureau won’t continue. It’s unclear if they want to.

B: But SEPA gave the Green GDP report team a “Green Heroes” award for their work. SEPA must be confident they’ll push out the report ?
O: Right now they’re not very optimistic. Not unless Wen Jiabao steps in.

B: Or the media stirs up the issue?
O: Possibly.

B: What about [SEPA vice-director] Pan Yue?
O: It’s even hard for him to speak up, because it’s an internal matter within the central government. For now, he can only remain silent.

– See also Xue Yong’s recent essay, “Without Green can there be GDP?”

March 30, 2007 4:34 AM