China has more than the weather to blame for its gray winter days. Heavy industrial production and winter weather conspire to exacerbate the country's smog problem, enveloping Beijing and the surrounding provinces in a dense brownish-gray cloud. On Monday, Reuters published a leaked copy of a draft document that lays out the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection's latest attempt to curb wintertime pollution. The document proposes to mitigate the smog by slashing heavy industrial activity, including production of aluminum, steel and fertilizer, and ban coal shipments from the key port of Tianjin — measures that could shake global commodity markets.
However drastic the proposed reforms may seem, China has little choice but to try to take on its environmental problems. The country's rapid economic climb has come at a high cost to its environment and natural resources. Today, poor air quality and polluted water are a fact of life in much of its industrialized regions. Better enforcement of environmental policies is imperative for Beijing, not only to demonstrate that it takes domestic concerns seriously but also to achieve the government's goal of being a global leader in climate policy. Implementing environmental policy will require a firm hand, and Beijing will have to assert its authority over its sprawling territory, much as it is doing with regard to economic policy, the energy sector and military strategy. For President Xi Jinping's administration, the plan is just one part of a strategy that goes well beyond environmental policy.
For the past several years, Beijing has been steadily adjusting its environmental policy to get a better handle on the pollution problem. Like the United Kingdom, United States, South Korea and Japan before it, China has started paying more attention to environmental standards as its economy has matured. Beijing established the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2008, and in the past three years, the Chinese government has increased efforts to monitor environmental compliance. At the same time, it has made its monitoring and enforcement activities more transparent, in keeping with the demands of the country's burgeoning environmentalist movement.
Still, implementing environmental policy at the local level is a continual challenge for Beijing. In addition to the logistical complications of enforcing regulations across such a vast and diverse territory, each province or municipality must calculate the costs and benefits of an environmental policy on its social, political and economic stability. Because these considerations vary from locality to locality, ensuring that national policies are uniformly implemented is difficult. During China's rebalance, Beijing emphasized economic output above all else, causing local leaders to dispense with environmental concerns in favor of maintaining production levels. (In Liaoning, the pressure to produce was so great that provincial officials doctored their numbers between 2011 and 2014.) By publicly shifting its focus from gross domestic product as the measure of a leader's success, Beijing has taken an important step toward encouraging local officials to follow through with its environmental policies.
Even without the emphasis on GDP, however, implementing Beijing's environmental policies will likely be too costly for some regions. Nevertheless, Beijing has more reason now than ever before to continue its campaign to clean up its environment. During the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama, Beijing and Washington made a mutual commitment to pursue stricter climate policies in their countries. And even though the new U.S. administration seems less dedicated to the fledgling partnership, Beijing is staying the course. China, in fact, is using its engagement with international environmental policy to make its name as a global leader, much as it is striving to do with its space program and financial sector. As the United States retreats into protectionist policies, Beijing is ready to challenge its dominance on the global stage and drive international cooperation. But to maintain credibility as a leader in global environmental policy, the Chinese government will need to demonstrate success with its domestic policy.
China is in the midst of a major transition, both domestically and internationally. To prepare for any bumps along the way, Beijing is working to centralize control of the country under the president. The changes in its environmental policy are just one part of this endeavor.