China’s economic growth over the past four decades has been staggering. The environmental damage it has caused is no less impressive.
China is dealing with widespread pollution problems, from thick smog in the northeast to contaminated water and soil throughout the country. But now a combination of domestic pressures and geopolitical strategy has put environmental issues at the top of the Chinese government’s priorities. In the past three years, and particularly since the release of the 13th Five Year Plan in 2016, Beijing has started rolling out stricter environmental policies. The transition is hardly surprising, following decades of rapid industrialization and coinciding with the emergence of a new middle class and a shift in the Chinese economy. It will, however, be challenging. The country’s vast territory and regional diversity make enforcing national laws at the local level an uphill battle. Even so, the strategic gains that stricter environmental policies promise — both domestically and internationally — could help Beijing speed the process along.
In 2016, for example, the central government instituted countrywide environmental inspections, dispatching teams of inspectors to each of China’s 16 provinces and regions, beginning with Hebei. The penalties for noncompliance included a 15-day detention sentence, fines or a complete shutdown of the facility found to be in violation. Beijing has also cracked down on enforcing its environmental policies, a perennial struggle for the Chinese government. Inspections conducted in November 2016 yielded 13,000 citations and fines totaling $22 billion for companies in Beijing alone. Similarly, the number of fines issued in Tianjin rose 56 percent from 2015 to 2016. Following investigations of a series of explosions that ripped through a storage facility at the Port of Tianjin in 2015, moreover, government officials and executives implicated in the incident received hefty sentences. In late 2016, the chairman of Rui Hai International Logistics was even sentenced to death for his role in the accident, which was attributed to mismanagement.