Jul 1, 2015

Over 8,400 arrested in China for environmental crimes in 2014 - Number of criminal cases in 2014 double the prior decade. Facing mounting public pressure, leaders declare war on pollution, saying they'll abandon growth-at-all-costs economic model that's spoiled much of its water, skies & soil.

Chinese police arrested thousands of people suspected of environmental crimes last year, a minister told parliament Monday, while at the same time vowing to get serious about protecting the environment.

Environment Minister Chen Jining told a bi-monthly session of the National People's Congress' standing committee that the number of criminal cases handed over to the police by environmental protection departments in 2014 reached 2,080, twice the total number during the previous decade. More than 8,400 people were arrested, according to a transcript of Chen's address published on the parliament's website. 

Facing mounting public pressure, leaders in Beijing have declared a war on pollution, saying they will abandon a decades-old growth-at-all-costs economic model that has spoiled much of China's water, skies and soil. 

But forcing growth-obsessed local governments and powerful state-owned enterprises to comply with the new laws and standards has become one of the Chinese government's biggest challenges.

"When Deng Xiaoping came to power, he decentralized power to the local government to stimulate economic growth. In essence he created a federal system with no checks," said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center, referring to the reformist Chinese leader who took power in the 1970s. "Now the Chinese government has been playing catch up. They've been trying to create environmental regulations and laws and campaigns to check pollution. In the 1990s, this was a halfhearted check, because the Communist Party and government needed the economy to develop … Now that the pollution is a true threat to economic development, they've got to deal with it."

According to a 2013 report from the World Bank, environmental degradation and resource depletion costs China about 9 percent of its Gross National Income.

Beijing has repeatedly promised to strengthen monitoring and law enforcement, and a new environmental law in force since the beginning of January allows it to impose unlimited fines and jail sentences on repeat offenders.

"The environmental protection amendments were significant in that they said if local governments will not meet the standards, they won't get money for developing their economy," said Turner. "So the hammer has been coming down."

In his speech to congress, Chen said the central government had allocated 9.8 billion yuan ($1.58 billion) in special funds to control air pollution in 2014, which helped "leverage" additional private investment of 300 billion yuan.