The environmental inspection teams sent by the central authorities to oversee the anti-pollution efforts of the local governments in Tianjin and five provinces, including Anhui, Shanxi and Liaoning, have described the situations they found as "shocking".
In Tianjin, where petrochemical industries thrive, air pollution worsened in the first quarter of this year, with the intensity of PM2.5－particulate matter with diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers that can penetrate deep into people's lungs－increasing by 28 percent year-on-year.
In Anhui province, 740,000 square meters of wetland surrounding its biggest lake, Chaohu, have been turned into an industrial waste dump, and the worsening water quality resulted in more than 30 percent of the lake being covered in algae last year.
The inspection teams also found some local officials forged environmental data, and, when pollution problems were exposed, merely gave the violators a slap on the wrist.
The inspectors attributed the problems to the weak environmental awareness of local officials, who don't appreciate its importance and tend to pay lip service to the central government's call for strengthened environmental protection while favoring local economic growth no matter the cost to the environment.
According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the central environmental inspection teams have so far visited 23 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions since the start of 2016. Fines of 880 million yuan (9 million) have been imposed and more than 1,000 people detained for cases related to pollution. Tens of thousands of officials have also been held accountable for their inaction or dereliction of duty with regard to environmental protection.
This shows that despite the central leadership's call for green and sustainable development, the environmental situation in many places continues to deteriorate.
The dire and worsening pollution in many parts of the country shows that stricter measures are needed to target violators of the environmental regulations and officials who fail in their duty to protect the environment. However, greater efforts are also needed to upgrade the growth model of local economies, too many of which still rely on traditional polluting industries.
As President Xi Jinping has said, green mountains and clear water are more valuable than mountains of gold and silver. To drive home this message, more heads need to roll, so that local officials take seriously their duty to protect the environment and promote more sustainable development.
To build an ecological civilization, local officials must pursue economic growth that is innovative, coordinated and more environmentally friendly.