○ A county environmental protection bureau's leaders lost their jobs after their performance on a TV show left the public unimpressed
○ Officials' performance in improving the environment has gradually become more important than growth since China began to attach greater importance to environmental protection
○ A new evaluation system aims to help change local officials' political priorities, push them to strengthen their anti-pollution efforts and encourage green development
Allegations of negligence are put to officials on a show broadcast by Xi'an TV. Photo: CFP
Li Xiaobing, head of the environmental protection bureau in Huxian county, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province was removed from his position soon after appearing on a recent live TV show on provincial television.
The show is a production of Xi'an TV in which officials are invited on to respond to criticism and suggestions from the public or explain problems exposed by the show.
During the two-hour broadcast on February 8, Li was called to account over environmental problems the TV show exposed in Huxian, which is administered by Xi'an, the provincial capital.
His vague responses not only disappointed the studio audience - 71.8 percent of whom said they were "unsatisfied" in an on-the-spot poll - but also displeased the vice mayor of Xi'an who is responsible for environmental protection.
"The problem is so serious and is this the way you deal with the trust placed in you by the Party committee?" Chen Songlin, head of Xi'an Environmental Protection Bureau scolded Li during a meeting held immediately after the TV show aired.
Three days later, Li was removed from his position together with the Huxian environmental protection bureau's deputy director and leaders of Huxian's disciplinary inspection team.
Firings are not the only things that happened fast after the TV show. Six of the 11 environmental problems exposed on the TV show have been corrected and the other five are being worked on.
A factory discharges its waste directly into a river in Shunde, South China's Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP
No direct answers
Such a large reshuffle at the top of a county-level authority in such a short time is rare.
Wang Yue, the producer of the TV show, which roughly translates to "Time To Question Politicians," also felt surprised. "However, it showed that our TV show has stepped up pressure and that the problems we unveiled really existed," Wang said.
The Discipline Inspection Commission of Xi'an, the major backer of the program, "invited" all the officials to attend the show on February 8.
The production team prepared five video packages on Huxian's problems - two on water pollution, two on air pollution and one on the disciplinary problems at the local environmental protection bureau.
One video showed that duck farms along the Fenghe River dump their waste into a local river. A duck farmer told the station's reporter that his business has never been suspended or affected in any way despite official reports on his illegal activities.
"It's not only me [who pollutes the river], other institutions along the river, including a medical school, all do the same thing," said the duck farm owner.
Reporters from the TV program then found waste water flowing into the Fenghe from an unidentified sewage pipe. The chemical oxygen demand (COD) in the water spewing from the pipe was 164 milligrams per liter.
COD is a measure of organic pollutants. China issued new regulations in 2015 stipulating that water with a COD level over 40 milligram per liter would be classified as "polluted" and that a higher COD means worse contamination.
"The reading [of the water sample] severely exceeded the standard," Chen admitted in the show, conceding that this showed that the environmental protection bureau had failed to do their duty.
When asked by the host why they failed to shut down the duck farms despite knowing that they had continued to pollute, Li gave no direct answers but just promised to "firmly crack down on them as soon as possible."
Li explained that Huxian's household waste water fails to reach emission standards, which lead to the high COD, and argued the county needs a sewage disposal plant to deal with this problem. But his answers to questions about when the local government will build the plant were ambiguous - he said they had decided to build one at first but later said that the plan had been postponed for some unknown reasons.
However, Ding Yanlin, a Xi'an-based environmental protection expert who watched the TV program, said that Li may have been treated unfairly when it came to this question.
"It is the construction bureau's duty to build and operate a sewage disposal plant and the environmental bureau is responsible for monitoring the quality of the water discharged from the plant… how could the head of the environmental bureau nail the deal when only the local government can make the decision?" said Ding.
"As far as we know, Li's removal and the reshuffle of the leading group were a little unfair. But the superior leaders may not have appeased the public if they failed to deal with the problems or hold officials accountable especially when environmental protection was particularly emphasised," an anonymous county official from Xi'an said.
What happened in Xi'an just revealed part of China's new trend in evaluating officials - that their performance in improving the environment has gradually come to outweigh their contribution to economic development.
Zhao Chenxin, spokesperson of China's National Development and Reform Commission, told a press conference in January that many governmental institutions have released new evaluation systems for officials, emphasizing their role in cleaning up the environment and encouraging green development.
The green development evaluation system covers seven fields, including the local government's usage of resources, rectification of environmental problems, the quality of the environment, the effectiveness of their environmental protection efforts, the promotion of green lifestyles, the quality of economic development and the satisfaction of the public.
Under this system, criteria related to environmental protection makes up 16.5 percent of an officials total rating while their contribution to growing GDP makes up less than 10 percent.
"The severe pollution problems are caused by heavier emissions but also have roots in the inadequate performance of local officials, some of whom may even act as the 'protective umbrella' of polluting enterprises," read a commentary published by China Youth Daily in January.
The new evaluation system aims to help change local officials' concept of political achievement, push them to strengthen pollution control efforts and courage green development, read the commentary.
And aside from altering its evaluation system, China has also increased its punishments for negligent officials.
According to a draft regulation released by the State Council in August 2015 on Party and governmental officials' misconduct as it relates to environmental damage, officials who stray from the path of Scientific Development and cause severe damage to the environment and resources will be held accountable even if they have been removed, promoted or retired.
Since last summer, China's central government has organized a two rounds of inspections of local governments' environmental protection efforts in 15 provincial-level regions including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. More than 3,000 officials were held accountable for environmental negligence by the end of September 2016.
However, implementing the State Council draft needs detailed standards, such as clearly defining the phrase "causing severe damage to the environment" and an explanation of how officials should receive supervision from the public, according to the commentary.
A diagram that shows which officials are responsible for fixing pollution and smog - featuring dismissed officials - is still hanging in the corridor of Huxian's environmental bureau, but the newly appointed leaders say they are busy dealing with the problems exposed on the show.
"There is nothing we can say. All of us are sweating blood to do our jobs," an anonymous senior official at the bureau said.
The first public test for the new leading group will come soon since they are required to attend the Xi'an TV show again on March 8, at which they will face questions from the public and the anchor on how they are fixing the problems their predecessors allowed to occur.