China's New Leader Could Be an Ecological Hardliner

For officials who authorize projects that hurt the environment, the consequences could be severe.

Mao haze banner.jpg
statue of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong is seen in front of buildings during a hazy day in Shenyang, Liaoning province, on May 7, 2013. (Sheng Li/Reuters)

China's president has laid down a stark warning to government officials: if you sanction a project that damages the environment, you'll be held responsible. For life.

Given the sharp growth in Chinese environmental activism , it's not surprising that Xi Jinping is keen to be seen taking action. In the last few months alone, Chinese people have been subject topoisoned water,poisoned food andpoisoned air, and a protest threatened to derail a major petrochemical facility. But will threatening municipal officials really make a difference?

Here's what Xi said, according to state media: "Those who made rash decisions regardless of the ecological environment, resulting in serious consequences, must be brought to account, and should be held accountable for a lifetime." Speaking at a meeting of the politburo, he went on to say how promotion criteria for party members would include environmental degradation and protection efforts. Guangdong province has already announced its intention to hold city mayors to account for water pollution.

The new criteria certainly a step in the right direction. Pollution has long been viewed by regional governments and Beijing alike as a necessary cost of economic growth, even though 80% of Chinese residents say they value environmental protection more. Attempts to introduce stricter environmental controls have also been met with resistance from China's giant state-owned enterprises .

Li Bo, a senior advisor to the environmental NGO Friends of Nature, told the South China Morning Post that often pollution data is never even made available. "Even if a project has caused serious pollution, the public is often kept in the dark," he said, pointing out that without public information, accountability is difficult. "If you can't hold an official responsible at all, how can you hold him responsible for a lifetime?"

It is also not doubtful that Xi's threats will have any effect on Chinese companies operating abroad. Theyspent $77.2 billion last year and have been criticized for their environmental impact, particularly in mining and hydropower.

China has not been completely complacent about cleaning up its act. Quite the contrary. The country is about to become the world's largest market for renewable energy , and companies are regularly punished by authorities for flouting regulations. But it's not enough, and serious party-level intervention will be much more welcome among Chinese activists than cracking down on barbeques and firecrackers.