Pollution Forces Chinese Leaders to Act

As National People’s Congress delegates meet in Beijing, and officially takes over as state president, China’s leaders are confronting a number of urgent issues facing the nation, including the degradation of the environment. Public pressure over the issue has been on the rise following a winter marked by dangerously polluted air in Beijing and other regions of north and eastern China. But resolving China’s environmental problems is a complex and long-term task, as the Guardian reports:

While the country’s new leaders have declared “ecological progress” will be a priority, analysts at a World Resources Institute-led press teleconference said China must deal with series of inter-linked challenges– economic prosperity, energy security, mitigating climate change and social unrest – to make environmental strides.

Even then, any changes probably won’t be seen until after 2015, when the country’s current five-year environmental plan ends, the analysts said.

“We’re not going to see any big change in 2013, because it is in the middle of China’s 12th five-year plan,” said Melanie Hart, a policy analyst for the Center for American Progress. Still, “the 2011 to 2015 plan is dedicated to move in a low carbon direction,” she said.

But following this winter’s “airpocolypse,” China’s new leaders have realized that resolving pollution is linked to their own legitimacy and survival. Der Spiegel reports:

The new leadership wants to transform China from a primarily agrarian and industrial country into a high-tech and service nation. At the same time, it intends to boost affluence and promote urbanization in order to come to grips with the country’s wealth disparity and population growth. If they achieve all of these goals, Xi and Li will leave behind a different China.

The challenge and the need to break with the past are especially evident in environmental policy. About 750,000 people die as a result of in China each year. Many of the country’s rivers are so polluted that authorities do not permit residents to even touch the water, not to mention use it to irrigate fields.

Fruit and grain grown in the country’s contaminated and over-fertilized soil contains massive amounts of pollutants. They also unsettle consumers in the West, who now import a large share of their tomatoes, apples and other food products from China.

Xi and Li now seem to have recognized just how serious this problem is. For months, they have invoked China’s “beautiful environment,” a phrase Xi used in his inaugural speech in November. “We must act,” says Li — and he clearly means it. Indeed, China’s environmental policy has developed into a question of national security — not because the government is particularly farsighted, but because its power is on the line.

At the National People’s Congress meetings, a journalist asked a panel of delegates how they personally would work to solve China’s environmental problems. Following a question that lasted almost three minutes and during which the journalist got quite emotional, the delegates offered no response. Liz Carter has provided English subtitles to the video:

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