Is China cracking down on pollution violators?

Worsening air conditions in China have lead to heightened public frustrations with pollution, causing the government to confront companies believed to be lying about their emissions data.

A paramilitary policeman wearing a mask stands guard in front of the giant portrait of Chinese late chairman Mao Zedong, amid heavy smog after the city issued its first ever 'red alert' for air pollution in Beijing, China, December 9.

Chinese police have detained 10 company officials Thursday for lying about their pollution data, the environment ministry reports. 

The company officials are accused of “using fake figures to swindle pollution treatment subsidies, manipulating environment monitoring results or hindering such monitoring,” the Ministry announced Thursday. 

A total of eight companies were accused, including a Coca-Cola joint venture in the Gansu province and sewage plant in the southern city of Dongguan. To help improve the country’s air quality, the government issues subsidies to companies effectively reducing their pollution. The ministry says the Dongguan sewage plant inflated the volume of pollution it treated to gain 20 million yuan, equivalent to $3.1 million.

Some of the companies could face criminal lawsuits, and subsequent conviction of environmental pollution crimes could yield a seven-year prison sentence.  

“Environmental awareness in Beijing is probably among the highest in the world in terms of general public engagement in the issue of air pollution,” Jonathan Batty, a spokesman for IBM Global labs, told Bloomberg.

Public engagement in the issue is exceptionally high this week as the Chinese capital of Beijing experienced its first-ever red alert for air pollution last week. Amid widespread discontent among Chinese citizens who have been advised to stay indoors, “the nation extends a crackdown on environment-related crimes,” the state news agency Xinhua reports. 

And many experts attribute China’s climate “crackdown” action on political stability and widespread public discontent rather than environmental stewardship. 

“China’s continuing struggle to control and reduce air pollution exemplifies the government’s fear that lifestyle issues will mutate into demands for political change,” Mary Gallagher, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, told Bloomberg. 

“As citizens know more about air pollution, more pressure will be put on the government,” added Xu Qinxiang, a technology manager at Wuhan Juzheng Environmental Science & Technology, the company that created the “Nationwide Air Quality” smartphone app in 2013. “This will urge the government to control pollutant sources and upgrade heavy industries.”

According to a Pew Research report released earlier this month, 76 percent of people in China say air pollution is a "big" problem, with 35 percent of these people describing the problem as "very big."

The government has responded to public sentiment by introducing several technologies, such as drones, sensors, and apps, designed to aid pollution control. 

This report contains material from the Reuters.

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