Odious Debts

Watchdog Pan Yue calls for environment renewal

by Wang Yong, Shanghai Daily
May 15, 2007

In 1962, an unassuming Rachel Carson convinced Americans that blind faith in technology, as evidenced in the indiscriminate use of pesticides, was harmful to man as well as nature.

Now, an unassuming Pan Yue is spearheading the drive in China for what he calls “biological civilization” arising from the debris of industrial pollution.

Although Carson was a scientist and writer and Pan Yue is a senior government official, both are determined lovers of nature and both speak with reason rather than emotion.

On Sunday night, Pan Yue, vice-minister of the State Administration of Environmental Protection, said in a CCTV interview: “The interests of a few (polluting plants) must give way to the interests of the (polluted) public. I will definitely close any factory if it harms the health of hundreds of thousands of the residents of a city, although it may have created jobs for a thousand workers.”

While Carson finally won her battle against big-name chemical companies, Pan is winning his battle against China’s polluters. But he admitted on Sunday that the battle was far from over.

Forcing a few cities or companies to close their heavily polluting plants was indeed a victory, Pan said in the Dialogue. “But that is not the end of the story.”

Forced closures are punishment postfacto, after the fact.

What Pan had in mind was scientific planning ex ante, before the damage occurs.

Any major industrial project must involve environmental experts in the first place. If it is not environmentally sound, it should be nipped in the bud.

Pan’s scientific spirit, however, is alien to many local officials and business people who believe that pollution is a necessary cost of economic growth and job creation.

Pan lamented that the positive environmental policies of the central government had often fallen on the deaf ears of some local officials.

He recalled a secret trip to the “Dark Triangle” area bordering Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces and Inner Mongolia that he and his colleagues took at the end of 2003, when he just became deputy head of the SEPA.

“We literally sneaked into the area. SEPA is a ministerial-level department and yet we had to sneak in to find what was really going on there … We found white sheep that were literally black because of pollution.”

Pan also found that many local plants – those churning out cement, for example – discharged waste water into the Yellow River without treatment.

In an article written in 2006, titled “China’s Green Debt,” Pan said: “True, China has made the kind of economic advances in three decades that required 100 years in Western countries. But China also has suffered a century’s worth of environmental damage in 30 years. Unfortunately, unlike Western countries, we cannot afford to wait until our per capita annual GDP reaches US$10,000 before tackling our environmental problems. Our experts predict that the environmental crisis will intensify to a critical stage by the time China’s per capita annual GDP reaches just US$3,000.”

China’s per capita GDP was US$1,700 in 2005 and is expected to reach US$3,000 in 2010. In many cities per capita GDP has already surpassed US$3,000 as they are exploding in size, depleting water resources and creating horrific traffic congestion.

More people and less living space is one of the biggest problems China faces in comparison to developed countries in the West.

That’s why China can’t wait until its per capita GDP reaches US$10,000 to rein in pollution.

Whistle blower

“Before I joined SEPA, I thought that China could be a world factory, that China could afford to pollute its environment until it is rich enough to clear it up. But now I have changed my ideas. China simply could not do this,” he said on Sunday.

Pan was not a man long on talk but short on action.

In January, he put a few cities on the pollution blacklist and stopped approving their new projects – until they cleared up their sky.
vSome complied, such as Luliang City in coal-rich Shanxi Province and Liupanshui City in Guizhou Province, and they have been removed from the blacklist.

This is not a time for celebration, however, Pan said.

In the first quarter of this year, heavy industries that consume too much energy and produce too much pollution went full steam ahead despite the central government’s effort to slow them down. Indeed, Pan could not clear up the sky all by himself. China’s environmental problems, he said, ultimately stem from the unrestrained pursuit of material gain devoid of morality and ethics.

Traditional Chinese culture, with its emphasis on harmony between man and nature, he observed, was thrown aside.

His words echoed those of Carson, who said: “We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe.”

Pan will leave a positive mark in China’s history of environment protection, not just because he is tough, but more important because he is a determined whistle blower as Carson was in the 1960s.

Both have stressed the public’s right to know. “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know,” Carson said.

“Effective media supervision, timely disclosure of information and active public participation are a key to environmental protection,” Pan said in an interview with China Youth Daily last month.

In Pan’s view, his department is not just about environmental protection, it’s also an ideal field to apply and improve centralized democracy. It must be a place of order and transparency.

Pan was a journalist for nearly 10 years and knew how difficult it was for a journalist to supervise an official. He opened himself up to media criticism. In this sense, Pan has done more than Carson to enhance the public’s right to know.

Categories: Odious Debts

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