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China's war on smog hampered by corruption, power struggle

SHANGHAI -- China's battle against air pollution has hit a brick wall constructed by corrupt bureaucrats and vested interests.

     Tackling smog is proving a politically charged issue, as the problem highlights how a retired party heavyweight connected to the police and the petroleum sector, Zhou Yongkang, is at loggerheads with President Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-corruption drive.

     Xi's anti-graft campaign aims to consolidate his power by alleviating popular discontent about corruption amid growing economic inequality. But he faces opposition to the targeting of Zhou from the party old guard -- who fear becoming the next target of his campaign -- including former President Jiang Zemin.

     China's sky is frequently darkened by thick, toxic clouds of smog. The smog is composed of nitrogen oxides and the pollutant PM2.5. It hurts the health of millions, disrupts air travel and impedes the growth of grains.

     The government's latest "work report," delivered in March by Premier Li Keqiang, pledged to tackle this challenge with unwavering resolve. But China has a long history of lower-rank officials acting independently, in a way that undermines the leadership's policy goals.

     Some bureaucrats, in collusion with businesses, often find ways to dodge the rules and regulations set by central government. Chinese leaders need to cut off the cozy ties if they want to deal effectively with the unfolding environmental disaster.

Good on paper

 "It is meaningless," an auto industry executive in Shanghai said, "no matter how much we raise the quality of gasoline and diesel." A host of new trucks passed by as the executive spoke. These brand-new vehicles were not equipped with catalytic converters, which clean toxic pollutants out of exhaust.

     Auto emissions are a key source of air pollution in China. Sulfur content in Chinese fuel is 15 times higher than in Japan or Europe. In response, the government has decided to replace the current emissions standard for auto fuels with a new one, which requires the sulfur content to be reduced by the end of 2014 to levels five times higher than in industrial nations. Big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have already adopted the tougher standard.

     The auto industry needs to adapt its products. For trucks with large engines, engine performance improvements alone are not enough to meet the tougher rules. To reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, trucks need to be equipped with catalytic converters.


But in reality, trucks without such devices are running on public roads, belching out black smoke. Why? The answer to this question indicates the enormity of the challenge the Chinese government faces.

     Chinese companies in theory cannot sell cars that do not meet all environmental and safety regulations. Manufacturers obtain type approval for each new vehicle they roll out. Currently, trucks without catalytic converters are not permitted for sale. This pushes up the prices of the large vehicles.

     But automakers can actually sell lower-priced trucks without a converter, because customers can obtain license plates for trucks that fail to meet the emission standards from local police authorities.

     Corrupt local police are just the start. The oil industry also contributes to the problem.

Tigers and flies   

China's gasoline market is dominated by three state-owned companies, including the Sinopec group. Efforts to deal with air pollution have been delayed because of these companies. In fact, oil giants such as China National Petroleum and Sinopec have managed to postpone the adoption of tougher fuel and emission standards several times.

     How? The so-called "oil clique," a powerful network of current and former oilmen, has long occupied the top echelons of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body.

     Zhou, who once headed China National Petroleum, was the oil clique's doyen. His other power base is the police. Zhou was the internal security chief under former President Hu Jintao and amassed enormous power before his retirement from the PSC in 2012.

     Now Zhou is the prime target of the anti-corruption campaign being spearheaded by Xi, who has vowed to fight both "tigers (powerful people)" and "flies (minor players)" in his campaign. He does so despite an unwritten rule that former PSC members should not be held accountable for their past deeds. Party elders oppose Xi's move because they could become targets if that rule is broken. 

     Will the capture of a tiger bring clear skies to China?


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