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Environmental worries of Chinese mayors

by Stefanie Schnitzer
China’s leaders are showing a growing interest in ecological issues in view of severe environmental degradation. Moreover, industrialised nations are putting the People’s Republic under increasing pressure to do something about climate change. Environmental problems are felt especially at the local level. For that reason, municipal decisionmakers are particularly committed. [ By Stefanie Schnitzer ]

China’s massive economic growth is taking its toll. Environmental problems are becoming ever more obvious. Cancer has become one of the most common causes of death; and not only foreigners notice the catastrophic air quality in the cities.

There is dissent in society; protests by citizens are becoming common. So far, China’s government has drawn legitimacy from material progress. Politicians are doing what they can to rise to ecological challenges. The Communist Party is aware of the need. In the tenth resolution of the National Congress, it proclaimed a “harmonious society” in general terms. In the 11th resolution, energy efficiency was made a national objective. These decisions place demands on the municipalities, which are in charge of solving local problems.

The construction boom, above all, is spelling trouble in the cities. Entire tracts of land are being built up. Garbage disposal often remains unregulated, and air pollution and noise are increasing. In many cases, the provision of drinking water is not guaranteed, and wastewater mostly flows into the rivers untreated. Those responsible in the municipalities are aware of the rising costs of environmental sins – in the form of diseases, for example, or crop failures in agriculture. A rethink has begun, challenging the idea that rapid growth is an end in itself. Shifts in awareness, however, take time.

InWEnt has been working with the China Association of Mayors (CAM) for several years in an effort to support change. The Association was formed in the late 1970s, and 4000 municipal leaders are involved today. The objective is to exchange experience and knowledge. The CAM’s was modelled after the German Association of Cities (“Deutscher Städtetag”), which some Chinese had learned about during a visit.

Geared to the market

Sustainable and environment-friendly urban development is a key issue for the CAM. At seminars and symposia in China and Germany, the mayors primarily discuss which “soft” policy instruments they can use, and how to do so. Soft instruments are incentives that are not based on statutory regulations but on market logic. Tariff arrangements which ease the burden of energy-efficient companies are an example, and so are energy-performance certificates which authorities issue to certify that buildings are well insulated and thus increase their market value. Meanwhile, some cities also subsidise the use of geothermal energy to widen the supply bottlenecks they are increasingly suffering from.

InWEnt’s advanced training programmes focus on strengthening decision-making skills and the ability to act. True to the Chinese saying “Seeing once is better than hearing a hundred times,” the mayors regularly travel to Germany on professional visits, visiting energy agencies or advice desks for citizens, for example.

Jiang Caiwen, mayor of the city of Zunyi in the Guizhou province, says that a specialist seminar in Germany last year “expanded the horizon of the members of the delegation”. He speaks of “new approaches” and identifying “measures to implement in our own work”. Exchange is also bred in German-Chinese city partnerships. For instance, Hilden and Guizhou province have twinned. Some participants of such trips have since risen to high political posts. One example is Wang Guangtao, the People’s Republic’s current minister of construction.

Yao Guohua is the mayor of the tea metropolis Pu’er in the southwest of the Yunnan province in China, and has benefited from an advanced-training course. When he had to rebuild parts of his city after an earthquake in June 2007, he was able to draw on the planning knowledge he had acquired in Germany. He knew how to take into account road layout, water supply, sewerage systems and the development of landfills right from the outset. Therefore, he managed to consider environmental, water and landscape protection requirements in the planning phase, as well as citizens’ needs and their participation.

Of course, not all environmental problems can be remedied locally. The pollution of rivers or groundwater, for example, does not only affect individual towns. If Chinese mayors want to make an impact in these
areas, they have to cooperate with one another – and exert influence at other levels of governmental decision-making. The lobbying the German Association of Cities carries out in the Federal Republic serves as model in this respect too.


Outlook

The cooperation with CAM has proven worthwhile, and InWEnt plans to intensify the dialogue. From 2008 on, InWEnt and the CAM will organise the German-Chinese mayors’ forums annually, alternately in China and Germany. At the reception for the 25th anniversary of cooperation at the end of 2007, Michael Schäfer, the German ambassador in Beijing, said: “The mayors’ programme is dedicated to key topics of both local and national importance while making a global impact.” In future, InWEnt will also assist such change by means of capacity building.