The Watcher: Ministry of Ecology and Environment is battle ready
Robert L. Kuhn
I’m Robert Lawrence Kuhn and here’s what I’m watching: China’s new Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), which combines the Ministry of Environmental Protection with the anti-pollution activities of six other ministries and agencies, thus centralizing all environmental issues in one ministry – and empowering it to clean up the country.
According to MEE Minister Li Ganjie, environmental protection has faced two major obstacles: the difficulty of making decisions due to overlapping duties among different departments; and blunted supervision power, as some supervisors were also in charge of management.
About ten years ago, a senior minister told me that when choosing between development and a clean environment "we will always choose development, because it is not fair to keep some in poverty so that others can have fresher air.” That prescription has expired.
Everyone suffers from air pollution. Jokes express people’s concerns. For example, in Beijing: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that air pollution today dropped by 95%. That’s great! How could there be bad news? The bad news is that air pollution today dropped to ‘Extremely Dangerous’.”
A joke, yes, but it exemplifies the “Principal Contradiction” in contemporary Chinese society, described by President Xi Jinping as the contradiction between “unbalanced and inadequate development, and the people's ever-growing needs for a better life.” This means that material goods alone are no longer sufficient to define happiness.
Even if your family has all the modern conveniences, and even some luxuries, if the air they breathe is polluted, they are not happy and seek "a better life.” The problem in the past was not the lack of anti-pollution laws and rules, but the enforcement of those laws and rules.
Moreover, financial fines were very low, so that it made financial sense for businesses to pay the fines and keep polluting. Worse, some polluting companies would be “alerted” when environmental officials were coming to inspect, so that the anti-pollution equipment could be turned on – at all other times, the profit-draining equipment was turned off.
China’s new Ministry of Ecology and Environment is cut from a different cloth. Only formed in April, MEE is already sending 150 teams to the Yangtze River to check for illegal discharges of solid waste. Offenders, whether companies or public institutions, will pay serious taxes – and MME is empowered to make sure those taxes hurt.
China has been talking about reducing pollution for a long time. Will this time finally be different? President Xi has defined “Three Big Battles” for the next three years, until 2020 – the advent of the "moderately prosperous society” – and fighting pollution is one of them. I think he’s serious. But I’m keeping watch. I’m Robert Lawrence Kuhn.
(Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn is a CGTN anchor, a public intellectual, international corporate strategist and investment banker.)