China is cracking down harder on polluters as a key political meeting approaches, but whether the pressure will continue remains unclear.
In recent months, the central government has mounted several rounds of inspections across the country, citing thousands of businesses and officials for violating environmental rules.
The sweeping inspections were announced last October as a response to the smog crisis that plagued northern cities during the winter heating season.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) teams are expected to cover all 31 provincial-level regions by the end of this year, the official English-language China Daily said.
But the crackdown on polluting companies and local officials who protect them has appeared to gather strength in the run-up to the Communist Party's 19th National Congress in the fall.
The findings so far have been staggering.
After two months of visits to 28 cities in the Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin region, the MEP reported in June that it had uncovered violations at 13,785 companies, or more than 70 percent of those examined, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Subsequent inspections have shown little improvement in compliance despite widespread publicity for the crackdown.
In a statement on Aug. 1 covering a month of inspections in Tianjin and six northern provinces, the MEP cited 31,457 pollution problems resulting in penalties at 8,687 companies and detentions of 405 people. more than 4,600 officials were held accountable for poor environmental performance, the agency said.
Even in Hebei province's Xiongan New Area, which President Xi Jinping has designated for development to ease congestion in Beijing, more than 7,200 polluting companies were investigated, nearly 4,000 were closed and some 100 people were arrested for violations, state media said.
All this activity is part of the government's anti-pollution push, which includes a more prominent role for environmental performance in assessing officials for promotion, said Mikkal Herberg, energy security research director for the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research.
In June, the government's Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform said that environmental audits would be "taken into consideration" when evaluating officials for advancement, even after they had left their posts, according to Xinhua.
Advocates have been urging the government for years to take environmental impact into account when promoting officials instead of judging them on economic growth alone.
The move is a sign that China's leadership is "tired of being ignored by provincial officials," Herberg said.
But the pressure of the inspection crackdown may also be the result of more immediate political considerations.
"On the political level, I don't think it's coincidental that this is happening in the run-up to the party congress because this is the time when everybody's nervous," said Herberg.
The congress is expected to confirm Xi for a second five- year term as general secretary and appoint yet-to-be-named leaders to key posts. Political suspense is running high.
"This is the time when Xi is trying to demonstrate his control and mastery of the system," Herberg said.
Increasingly, environmental compliance appears to be another test of obedience to the party leadership, similar in some respects to the anticorruption campaign.
Rampant violations, such as those disclosed by the inspections, are unlikely to be tolerated in the pre-congress period.
Shutdowns of polluting factories and traffic in the Beijing area can be expected during the congress itself to assure leaders of a "blue sky" backdrop.
The issue of party discipline may account for the government's increasing specificity in identifying violations and publicizing them in the official press.
Earlier this month, for example, China Daily reported on a county in Guizhou province that had expanded a construction area inside a nature reserve from 1.5 square kilometers (0.6 square miles) in 2009 to 16.9 square kilometers this year.
Shenyang city of Liaoning province was found to be dumping 270,000 metric tons of raw sewage per day due to lack of treatment facilities and pipelines, the report said.
In Hunan and Liaoning provinces, city governments issued false documents to cover up dumping and emissions by local companies, according to another report.
In a frustrating result for both the environment and party discipline, the MEP said last month that the average number of "good air" days in 338 cities fell in the first half of 2017 from a year before.
The density of fine smog-causing particles known as PM2.5 showed no improvement in the surveyed cities and actually rose 14.3 percent in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, Xinhua reported.
In July, PM2.5 concentrations were down 6.9 percentage points from a year earlier in the 338 cities, but the number of "good air" days was also 6.3 percentage points lower, the news agency said.
Much of the winter smog in the capital region came from Hebei province's coal-burning steel plants that boosted production last year to take advantage of rising prices after the government ordered them closed.
In a particularly blatant case of defiance, the cabinet-level State Council said in May that all plants producing "inferior-quality steel (reinforcing) bars will be dismantled" throughout the country by the end of June.
The order was an admission that manufacturing of substandard "rebar" has continued for years after the shoddy materials were blamed for school collapses and student deaths during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Yet on July 29, Xinhua reported that State Council inspectors had found two mills in Tianjin still producing the bars and another in Hunan province seeking to reopen.
"Those breaking government rules will be strictly punished, and authorities with weak supervision will be held accountable," Premier Li Keqiang was quoted as saying.
Lack of cooperation
Daniel Gardner, a China scholar and history professor at Smith College, said that "a major, perhaps the major, obstacle in the way of environmental progress is the lack of cooperation by local officials and the local environmental protection bureaus."
"Simply put, they have their own priorities — mostly economic — that are often at odds with the central government's," said Gardner in an email.
The conflicts appear to be coming to the fore at a time when government responses to public concerns and adherence to the party line are both at a premium.
"The publicity over the inspection teams is meant to signal to local authorities that they will now be held accountable, that although they might choose to look the other way in the face of pollution violations by local industry, Beijing will not," Gardner said.
Gardner sees close links between the pollution crackdown and the anticorruption campaign.
"Official negligence and corruption have long abetted the behavior of industries responsible for poisoning the country's air, water and soil," he said. "Environmentalists in China see the anticorruption campaign as essential to curbing the endemic collusion between polluting industries and local officials."
The connections raise the question of whether the crackdown will continue to intensify after the pressure of the party congress passes, or whether it will fade into the background along with other campaigns.
"That's the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, because enforcement efforts ebb and flow," said Herberg.
"I would guess that after the party congress, the intensity of the pressure would ease off," he said.
Herberg reasons that once the congress is over, Xi will have established his control for the next five or 10 years with new members of the Politburo and its powerful Standing Committee in place.
"Then, I guess some of the intensity might go out of it," he said, referring to the antipollution crackdown.
But Herberg also sees reason to believe that the environmental push will continue at a high level because of the pervasiveness of smog.
Unlike local cases of toxic dumping and chemical spills that can be covered up, China's air pollution is a visible problem that only government enforcement can solve.
"They can't deal with the air pollution. They can't hide it," Herberg said. "This is something that's a long-term strategic issue for them."