China’s green pledges are as deep as a coat of paint

By Isabel Hilton (THE GUARDIAN, 20/02/07):

Fumin county, a hitherto obscure district in southwest China, became the object of international mockery last week when news reached the outside world that the bare slopes of Laoshou mountain had been painted green, to the bewilderment of the villagers and at a cost of about £30,000.Reports were divided about who was responsible. Many blamed local bureaucracy, others a Mr Du, a businessman who had made some of his money from the quarrying that had wrecked the mountain’s beauty. He had done it to mitigate the negative feng shui affecting his business, though the idea that negative feng shui could be changed with a few hundred litres of paint must cast a few doubts on the claim that it promotes harmony with nature.

The episode resonates with a long Chinese tradition of confusing appearance with reality. When, in the 1950s, Mao Zedong decreed that China would overtake Britain in steelmaking within 15 years and that agricultural yields would double with the application of the correct theory, officials all over China reported that the miracle had taken place. When Mao went on tours of inspection, healthy crops were uprooted and hastily replanted along his route so that the Great Helmsman would see an unbroken vista of dense green vegetation. He was never troubled with the news that the plants died within days of his passage, and later refused to believe millions were starving. Had he not seen the bountiful harvests in the making?

In the Cultural Revolution, a similar enthusiasm for theory made the poverty-stricken village of Dazhai a national model. The village claimed to have produced staggering volumes of grain through the correct application of the thoughts of Chairman Mao. The village headman was promoted to national celebrity and peasants across China were instructed to emulate Dazhai’s methods, later exposed as fraudulent. Compared to the suffering both those episodes caused, painting a mountain green is a minor matter.

The greening of Laoshou mountain indicates that some aspects of China have not greatly changed. In the 11th five-year plan, the economic policy blueprint approved in 2005, the Chinese leadership announced a change of emphasis that appeared to acknowledge the threat catastrophic environmental degradation posed to continued growth. Environmentalists had long pointed out China’s model of development was unsustainable, but their warnings had been dismissed with an official mantra of “development first, environment later”. It was an approach, the leadership liked to point out, that had served the west’s industrial revolution well, and now it was driving China’s economic miracle.

The 10th five-year plan paid lip service to environmental concerns. It had set 20 targets, eight of which were not met. But by 2005, the signs of a potential environmental collapse and of widespread social unrest were so alarming that the 11th plan contained a major rebalancing of priorities in favour of the environment and social justice.

A key target was that of reducing by 20% the amount of energy required to produce one unit of GDP by 2010 – a projected annual target of 4%. In an important shift in priorities, the government declared an equal focus on environmental protection and economic growth. To reinforce the message, environmental protection would count in assessing officials’ performance. The targets, and the apparent determination to meet them, were hailed as milestones in China’s environmental history.

The targets sounded ambitious, but another set of figures illustrates how much room there is for improvement in China’s industrial performance. It is staggeringly wasteful. Each unit of GDP takes seven times more resources to produce than in Japan, nearly six times more than in the US and nearly three times more than in India. Even small efficiency savings would clearly yield important gains.

A familiar pattern set in. In the Maoist era, political campaigns were a fact of bureaucratic life. A directive would be issued, meetings would be held, scapegoats and victims identified and, after an interval, reports of its successful implementation sent to Beijing. Old habits are persistent, and what really counts for officials is still economic growth. That is what gives them status, personal wealth and promotion. Faced with instructions to protect the environment, they will put up a few posters and carry on as before.

And who is to challenge them? The press is constrained, the legal system is rarely independent, there is no possibility of a change of government via the ballot box and local state environmental protection bureaux come under the authority of provincial governors, whose behaviour they are meant to regulate. The only watchdogs are the infant NGOs – underfunded and vulnerable to persecution. Even at national level, environmental enforcement is the weakest branch of government.

It should come as no surprise, then, that energy efficiency targets were missed last year, and there is little prospect next year will be any different. Without profound reform, Beijing’s declarations of intent are the national equivalent of painting a mountain green.