Inspections test the mettle of local officials

Messages from central environmental inspectors can be nerve-racking for lower-level officials in China. They need to act quickly, or risk getting fired.

Messages from central environmental inspectors can be nerve-racking for lower-level officials in China. They need to act quickly, or risk getting fired.

Central inspections were launched in July 2016, giving environmental officials more power to hold officials accountable for problems.

Inspectors are dispatched by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and also include the Party’s anti-graft watchdog and personnel department.

Messages sent by inspectors to city officials are immediate calls to action.

Last week, officials in Huzhou in east China’s Zhejiang Province wasted no time in responding to a lead provided by central inspectors who had arrived on August. 

One resident told them that dead pigs had been buried illegally when they should have been properly cremated.

The lead was sent to the Huzhou government on August 30. The next day, police, agricultural and environmental protection officials brought diggers to the area.

Within 10 days, six people, most of whom worked for a waste treatment company, were detained on suspicion of mishandling the dead pigs. Over 300 tons of carcasses were found.

Party discipline authorities of Huzhou are investigating officials for possible misdoings.

Central inspectors are seen as the latest weapon in China’s fight against soil, air and water pollution, as decades of growth have saddled the country with problems such as smog and contaminated soil.

Since 2016, three rounds of inspections have been carried out, and the fourth round, which began in August, will complete coverage of 31 provinces, municipalities and regions.

So far, nearly 15,000 officials have been disciplined, according to ministry figures.

During the third round, which covers seven provincial-level regions, including Tianjin, Shanxi and Liaoning, inspectors received 31,457 tip-offs from the public, almost double the number of reports in the second round.

“The figures show that inspection is not empty talk. They have gotten to the root of the problem and are getting anyone who is responsible,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based non-governmental organization.

For a single province, an inspection usually lasts a month. Inspectors interview provincial and city environmental regulators, carry out field trips and talk to members of the public.

Inspectors collect reports on problems and send them to local governments, which must correct them and submit a report within 30 days, followed by a progress report six months later.

Last year, inspectors looked into 33,000 cases and imposed fines totaling 440 million yuan (US$67 million). A total of 720 people suspected of a crime were detained and close to 6,500 were disciplined.

“During the fight against pollution, an increasing number of environmental problems have been exposed, and there is no hiding, especially the misdoings of some local officials who still chase economic development regardless of the harm done to the environment,” said Zhao Hongxu, a resident of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

In order to battle smog around Beijing ahead of winter, the ministry is launching more rounds of inspections this month. 

If cities fail to meet air quality improvement targets, officials will be held accountable. 

Special Reports