Beijing has been on green alert in the past month, as environmental issues rose to the top of the government’s agenda.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who is not use to delivering bad news, told the new national environmental taskforce, “the situation we are facing is very grim, so we must have a strong sense of crisis and urgency.”
Even as Wen urged the nation to fight pollution, the government worked to suppress information about the extent of the problem.
The latest instance of government intervention occurred in mid-July, when the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced that it was suspending the release of “green GDP” figures this year. Green GDP numbers were released last year for the first time, and they showed that pollution costs took up 3.05% of the GDP in 2004.
The NBS said it would not release figures this year because there are no international standards for calculating green GDP. The Wall Street Journal reported that the suspension was the result of a fall-out between the bureau and the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).
An earlier case of information suppression came when the Financial Times revealed that Beijing had pressured the World Bank to modify a report on China’s environmental situation. The report originally said that pollution caused 750,000 premature deaths in the country, but the Chinese government later had that figure removed.
Environmental degradation has caught official eyes, and for good reason.
A day before Wen’s speech, SEPA’s head said worsening pollution was the cause of rising cases of “mass incidents”, or protests, among the people. The agency promptly announced that companies caught breaking environmental laws would be barred from receiving bank loans in future.
Behind all this, the scandals continued to emerge. More than 200,000 people faced water shortages in Shuyang city in Jiangsu province after ammonia was found in a river, while recurring algae blooms threatened Lake Chao, triggering flashbacks of May’s algal outbreak that caused water shortages to two million in Wuxi.
Even China’s annual floods have worsened this year. In mid-July, the Huai River, a major river that runs through three provinces in central and eastern China, experienced some of its worst floods since 1954. Almost half a million people, mainly villagers from Anhui, Henan and Jiangsu provinces, were evacuated.