Cancer victims

For China's growing number of environmentalists, the crux of China’s annual “Two Sessions” lies in the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) press conference, scheduled near the end of the sessions. Many of us had high hopes this year. After all, the first week of the conference appeared to differ from previous years in that environmental issues were often at the front and center of deliberations.

In the first week we heard the former MEP Vice Minister say the country's air pollution problem could be addressed in 10 years, given enough political will. This followed with another Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) member and general manager of a wind turbine manufacturer, Zhang Chuanwei, suggesting that China should curb its coal use in eastern regions and embrace cleaner power sources. Seven CPPCC members, including three vice Environment Ministers, also called for a joint proposal by key regions including Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta for a coal cap, mirroring Greenpeace's own demands.

But the MEP conference conducted last Friday thoroughly ruined the hopes (and the weekends) of environmentalists pushing for change. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the questions were largely "arranged," responses "tightly scripted" and the real concerns were not addressed.

Nevertheless there were still a few crumbs thrown our way from which we should attempt to glean the government's plans for the year. Vice Minister Wu Xiaoqing began the press conference by outlining MEP's plans to tackle air pollution, which will take center stage in the ministry's work.

It appears the MEP has picked up on the swelling public outcry in recent months. Wu's modest comments touched on plans to cap regional coal consumption and include air pollution as a metric to evaluate regional and local Party official’s performance, both of which are crucial steps.

But the devil lies in the details. Without clear signals on when these measures will be implemented, and how stringent enforcement will be, the requirements outlined in the government's own work report are far from fulfilled.

In fact, the Vice Minister failed to answer a question regarding what scientific basis had been used in establishing the 18 year timeline for Beijing to meet air quality standards, particularly when previous MEP timetables had set a 2030 deadline. The emptiness of this press conference reveals just how difficult it is for the MEP to flex its muscle against polluting industries, uncooperative local governments, and other more powerful ministries. By the end of the two-week conference we witnessed little more than business-as-usual.

But continuing to fail the people and the environment has its own risks. The country's recently off-the-chart air pollution levels, along with multiple water and food scandals, highlight the severity of the country's environmental challenges. An increasingly dissatisfied public is proving that the environment is intertwined with social welfare and is one of the key political mandates the government has to deliver on.

Some NPC delegates used their vote to echo the growing public anger. On March 16th, delegates re-elected MEP Minister Zhou Shengxian with the narrowest margin among the 25 ministers appointed. Balloting on the new line-up of the National People's Congress' environmental protection and resources conservation committee also saw a historic number of opposition votes with 850 votes in opposition and 125 abstentions, about a third of the total votes. In a rare turn of events, the members of the committee were even booed by delegates.

Some delegates boldly voiced their dissatisfaction on-the-record. Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a National People's Congress member and the country's most renowned respiratory disease expert, told reporters, “We have now reached this stage, where food, water and air – elements of people's basic health and survival – are at risk. At this stage, do we put GDP first or health first?" 

Zhong believes poor air quality in Chinese cities has led to higher rates of disease throughout the country and called on Beijing to resolve the air pollution problem in 10 years. He was also quoted in Caixin as saying, "I am a doctor. Honestly, public health is firstly linked to what people eat, drink and breathe. Without protections in these three areas [Jingjinji, Yangze River, and Pearl River Regions], development in other areas becomes meaningless."

Likewise the famed singer from Inner Mongolia and CPPCC member, Tengger, told reporters: "I am very worried about the coal expansion and the damage it caused on Inner Mongolia grass land".

Concerned delegates such as Zhong and Tengger, along with vocal journalists and environmental activists represent the will of the people who are demanding better governance. They are asking questions such as how do we de-link economic growth from environment? And how do we give the environment the weight it deserves?

In looking to the country's new leaders it must be noted that Premier Li Keqiang did acknowledge the growing environmental concerns. In his first press conference as premier, Li confessed he is personally “quite upset” by the recent air pollution and vowed to take “resolute steps” to tackle China’s environment problems with public supervision. As Eve Cary pointed out last month, Li has also promoted environmental and renewable energy issues in the past. And when the Premier urged for “new thinking” on development, environmentalists couldn't have agreed more whole-heartedly.

China's environmental tipping point was passed long ago, but corresponding actions have stalled, and even regressed over the past few years. Can we rally from the deficit in the next few years? Now is the time for the whole nation to engage in collective soul searching and reflect on the true meaning of development.

Image: Wang Changgen, pictured with his wife, is from Sanjiang village. The 68-year-old has been diagnosed with late stage esophagus cancer. The village where he lives has been severely affected by pollution. © Lu Guang / Greenpeace