China is getting serious about curbing pollution. According to sources, up to 40% of its factories have been closed at least temporarily recently as the country has struggled to meet its year-end pollution reduction goals. Officials from more than 80,000 factories have been charged with criminal offences for breaching emissions limits over the past year.
“[B]asically, you’re seeing these inspectors go into factories for surprise inspections,” supply chain consultant Gary Huang from 80/20 Sourcing tells NPR (h/t Futurism). “They’re instituting daily fines, and sometimes — in the real severe cases — criminal enforcement. People are getting put in jail.”
How is the crackdown affecting China’s sprawling manufacturing sector? The government says total output will not be affected, but it is hard to see how the stepped up enforcement could fail to have a negative economic effect.
In prior years, factory shutdowns only lasted a few weeks at most, but environmental protection minister Li Ganjie says the number and length of closures this year is “unprecedented.”
“For those areas that have suffered ecological damage, their leaders and cadres will be held responsible for life,” Yang Weimin told the New York Times recently. He is the deputy director of the Communist Party’s Office of Financial and Economic Affairs. “Our people will be able to see stars at night and hear birds chirp,” he promises.
At the Communist Party annual congress this week, China announced that it plans to reduce the amount of fine particulate matter (that’s the stuff in the air that is less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which is small enough to cross over into the bloodstream from the lungs) from 47 micrograms per cubic meter in 2016 to 35 micrograms per cubic meter by 2035.
“It will be very difficult to reach the goal, and we need to make greater efforts to achieve it,” Li says. “These special campaigns are not a one-off, instead it is an exploration of long-term mechanisms. They have proven effective so we will continue with these measures.”
The tougher enforcement of pollution laws is putting pressure on China’s industrial sector, which will need to adapt by instituting better, smarter, and safer ways of doing business.
“It’s a huge event. It’s a serious event. I think many of us here believe it will become the new normal,” exporter Michael Crotty from China-based MKT & Associates told NPR. “The consumers of China don’t want red and blue rivers. They don’t want to see grey skies every day.”
Unlike the United States, where polluters are rewarded with generous government subsidies at taxpayer expense, China is determined to do what is necessary to protect its citizens from environmental harm. Some would call that leadership.