China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Monday, March 05, 2007

Chinese Premier Focuses on Pollution and the Poor

BEIJING, Monday, March 5 — Prime Minister Wen Jiabao conceded Monday that China was failing on important energy and pollution goals and declared that the country must become more energy-efficient and quickly improve environmental protection to safeguard the long-term health of its booming economy.

Mr. Wen, making China’s equivalent of the State of the Union address, also pledged more government spending on education and health care, particularly for poorer residents in rural areas.

His nationally televised speech, which opened the annual gathering of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, was generally short on specifics but emphasized past themes like social equality and the need to reduce the income gap between rural and urban residents.

Mr. Wen has spoken before about the importance of environmental protection, but he gave the issue greater emphasis in his speech, describing plans to shut down “backward” steel and iron foundries and inefficient, polluting power plants. He said development projects would have to meet national environmental standards and vowed that China must “bring pollution under control.”

“We must make conserving energy, decreasing energy consumption, protecting the environment and using land intensively the breakthrough point and main fulcrum for changing the pattern of economic growth,” Mr. Wen told the opening session of the Communist Party-controlled national legislature.

Yet the difficulty of recalibrating China’s soaring economy was also evident in Mr. Wen’s remarks. Economic growth reached 10.7 percent last year, and while Mr. Wen predicted a more modest 8 percent growth rate for 2007, he acknowledged that such projections are merely goals for budgeting purposes. China has repeatedly exceeded growth projections in recent years, and the government has struggled to keep a lid on the economy.

Mr. Wen described serious structural problems in the economy, but he emphasized that nothing was more important than maintaining the nation’s boom, which many experts consider essential to the Communist Party’s continued rule.

Environmental protection and energy conservation have earned an higher profile from government leaders in recent years as it has become evident that China’s economy is devouring its resources and polluting its land and air. The most recent five-year plan calls for a 20 percent reduction in energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product.

But Mr. Wen acknowledged that China had already failed to meet the reduction goals in the first year of that program. It also failed to meet a goal of reducing the overall discharge of pollutants by 2 percent last year, he said.

He blamed the setbacks on the slow pace of industrial restructuring, the growth of heavy industry and the failure of some local governments to abide by environmental laws.

Mr. Wen spent little time discussing the usually volatile issue of Taiwan and placed only passing emphasis on the country’s military modernization efforts. He did not mention this year’s large 17.8 percent increase in military spending, but said the People’s Liberation Army was in the midst of changes to transform it into a force capable of fighting the high-tech wars of the 21st century.

He called for continued overhauls of banking, currency valuation and the financial sectors and also addressed the trade issues that have become so contentious in the United States. “We must optimize the mix of imports and exports, change the pattern of China’s foreign trade growth and strive to reduce our excessively large trade surplus,” he said.

Mr. Wen spent more time expanding upon last year’s theme of building “a new socialist countryside,” the slogan for the government’s efforts to enliven the lagging rural economy. He said the economy had lifted incomes for both city and rural residents but acknowledged that an array of problems pressed down on common citizens, particularly the rural poor.

He warned that illegal land confiscation had to be stopped. He praised the real estate industry as an essential part of the national economy, but he called on developers, who have built expensive projects all over China, to also focus on building affordable housing and not to threaten “primary farmland.”

In the past, Mr. Wen has used his speeches before the National People’s Congress to announce plans to repeal the agricultural tax on farmers and to extend free schooling to students in the poorest regions. This year, he said the government would stop collecting tuition and fees from all rural students. He said the government would also expand pilot projects to build a rural cooperative health care system and would begin establishing the equivalent of a welfare program for the poorest people.

Corruption, meanwhile, has become a dominant concern in recent months, as President Hu Jintao has ordered a nationwide crackdown that many political analysts consider as much about purging political enemies as cleaning up the government.

Mr. Wen repeated demands that government officials act within the law and mentioned the need to end official extravagance. The two-week legislative session that opened Monday is usually a rubber-stamp gathering to approve initiatives already vetted by top leaders in Beijing. Delegates are expected to approve a major law protecting private property rights, as well as a new law equalizing corporate tax rates on foreign and domestic companies.

The property law, debated for years, was tabled at last year’s congress after it sparked an unusually public ideological debate about the merits of capitalism and socialism. Detractors have warned that the law would provide legal protection for officials who have misappropriated state assets and would also deepen the country’s income divide. Advocates say China’s embrace of market economics makes legal protections for private property a necessity.

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