The word environment was mentioned 89 times by Xi Jinping in his report to the 19th Congress of the ruling “communist” party, even more than ‘economy’. He has sent out investigative teams from the central government to the provinces to check on the progress of anti-pollution measures. Reports indicate that over 12,000 officials and 18,000 companies have been prosecuted.
The media claims that this is China’s largest environmental protection campaign in history. Xi seems to be an ardent champion of the environment, but in fact he is forced into action by increasing anti-pollution protests from below, as well as the enormous economic loss due to environmental destruction. However, economic pressure and an unofficial boycott by local governments mean Xi’s policies will not achieve substantial results.
In October, the medical periodical The Lancet published a study, reporting that more than 1.8 million Chinese were killed by pollution in 2015, accounting for one-fifth of all deaths in China. An earlier report published by Nanjing University reveals that among the 74 main cities of China, one-third of the deaths can be attributed to PM2.5 pollution (dangerous airborne small dust particles).
What is more, decreasing levels of PM2.5 in the Pearl River Delta and some other regions have led to a new problem – a rapid increase in ground level ozone. Ozone is produced by other pollutants being exposed to sunlight. It is associated with strokes and heart disease, and has led to more than 36,000 premature deaths in China in the last three years. The dictatorship’s policy of ‘economy first’ has led to generalised pollution, and has been making the CCP regime “attend to one thing and lose sight of another”.
Increasing and serious pollution, as well as rising public concern over the health effects, have led to mass anti-pollution protests across the country. In November, the masses in Zhaoqing, Guangdong, went onto the streets to protest a third attempt by the local government to build a garbage incinerator; the project was suspended twice in the past due to public protests.
The inability to solve its pollution problems has tarnished the authority of the CCP regime. It is compelled to respond, but the campaign against pollution will add more pressure onto the already fragile economy , which means that Xi is unlikely to be pursuing it at all costs.
In the first half of 2016, the government further loosened the environmental protection regulations to stimulate the weak economy, and this led to the revival of many high-polluting industries such as steel, which has aggravated the air pollution problem.
A widespread smog cloud covering 1.88 million square kilometres appeared over 90 cities in December that year. In the first three quarters of this year, the PM2.5 readings in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region increased by 10 percent compared to the year before. The effects have been global – greenhouse gas emissions have increased sharply in 2017 after two flat years, due to the rebound for heavy industry in China. Société Générale estimates that the environmental protection measures will cost China 0.25 percent of annual GDP, and thus when new risks of economic slowdown arise, Xi is likely to relax pollution controls again.
Bureaucratic measures leading to chaos
At the same time, Xi Jinping is also facing resistance from local governments, shown in the fact that he is compelled to send out investigative teams to the local level. However, such direct intervention by the central government has caused chaos. Many officials seek to avoid punishment by closing down all factories before the arrival of the investigative teams, regardless of whether the factories are up to official environmental standards or not. This has forced the Ministry of Environmental Protection to intervene and stop such over-reaction.
To solve the serious winter smog problem, the government banned the burning of coal in Beijing and its vicinity. Yet the policy was hastily implemented with many regions not having a stable supply of natural gas, leaving at least tens of thousands of families without any heating over the harsh winter.
Combating pollution requires mass environmental protection campaigns and workers’ democratic control of clean production on a socialist basis. Xi’s attempts to solve the environmental crisis with a mixture of bureaucratic and ‘market’ measures will not achieve any substantial long-lasting results, and will certainly trigger further mass anger.
In June, US President Donald Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, and global media dubbed China as the new international leader in fighting climate change. Yet, the Chinese regime is one of the greatest obstacles to combating climate change. Since the launch of the ‘Belt and Road’ project, China has been building large amounts of coal power plants around the world, and it has also surpassed Japan as the largest exporter of coal power generation equipment in the word. One of China’s largest producers of electrical equipment, Shanghai Electric, has announced its plans to build 6,285MW power plants in Egypt, Pakistan, and Iran, which is equivalent to ten times China’s domestic construction plans.
The CCP regime hopes to use the overseas market to alleviate the pressures of carbon reduction measures on its own electric and coal industries. These new power plants mean that climate control targets set in the Paris Agreement will be Mission Impossible. The World Bank has criticised China for using poorer countries with weaker environmental protection regulations as pollution havens, but at the same time, the World Bank has also deregulated environmental limits to compete with China. This is a race to the bottom at the expense of the climate and the health of the masses.
Socialists stand against the capitalist class who seek profits at the expense of the environment and the health of the masses; we are also against imperialist powers exporting their pollution problem to other countries.
The only solution to the global climate and pollution crisis is to build an international working class movement to oppose the “profit first” capitalist system. We need to nationalise the banks and the big corporations and to place them under workers’ democratic control and management, promote clean production under democratic planning, and invest more capital and resources in developing clean energy and green technology.