After years of promoting economic growth, China is putting pollution on the list of concerns for officials seeking to advance their careers.
On May 5, China's top government and party authorities issued a new set of "environmental guidelines" that may compel local officials to curb pollution in their districts or suffer the consequences.
For decades, officials have climbed the career ladder by launching industrial development and construction projects with little regard for the environment, while their performance has been judged largely by their ability to deliver growth of gross domestic product (GDP).
The "GDP obsession" has proved ruinous for the environment, an effect that the central government has now promised to reverse.
In the new "Guidelines of Pushing the Construction of Eco-Civilization," the State Council, or cabinet, and Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have put local officials on notice that they will face "lifetime accountability" for projects that result in "severe environmental damage," the Global Times reported.
“Retired officials whose malpractice is exposed could have their pensions docked or be prosecuted for their criminal liability," said Xia Guang, director of the Policy Research Center for Environment and Economy at the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), according to the CPC-affiliated daily.
The guideline's 35 clauses echo provisions of an environmental law issued in January and official targets set as far back as 2009. Detailed regulations are expected to follow, the official Xinhua news agency said.
The guidelines repeat the government's pledges to cut 40 to 45 percent of carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 2020 compared with 2005 levels and raise the non-fossil share of energy sources to 15 percent.
Although those promises are old, the emphasis on environmental protection and pressure on local officials appear to be new, at least in degree.
“I think the government is frantic to address what's becoming a desperate pollution crisis," said Daniel Gardner, a China scholar and history professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, who writes frequently on environmental issues.
In a report by state television CCTV, the director of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) planning agency, Xu Shaoshi, said the guidelines establish a new "bottom line."
"It states that any change to the environment can be only for the better, not worse," Xu was quoted as saying.
Gardner said Beijing appears determined to deal with the long-festering problem of "local officials who don't implement and enforce the environmental regulations and policies laid down by state agencies."
How far will it go?
How far the pressure will go remains to be seen.
Some readings of the guidelines by state media seem considerably softer, suggesting that officials would face only temporary setbacks for environmental offenses.
"Those held responsible for pollution will be affected beyond their terms of office, barring them from being promoted or working in leading positions for a year," the official English-language China Daily said.
But at the least, pollution appears to be rising on the list of career considerations.
Environmental performance now accounts for 20 percent of the annual assessments for officials in northeastern Hebei province, China Daily reported.
The stronger statements by the State Council, the NDRC and the Central Committee are likely to make a bigger impression than those from the relatively weak MEP, Gardner said.
Since Premier Li Keqiang declared a "war against pollution" in March 2014, efforts in some areas have been extensive, but results have been mixed.
While Beijing is expected to close the last of its four coal-fired power plants next year, 90 percent of China's cities still fail to meet the country's own air quality standards, according to a recent Greenpeace East Asia report.
In April, the Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) reported that 61.5 percent of the underground water tested in China's cities was rated as "very poor" or "relatively poor" last year.
Despite cleanup efforts, the proportion rose from 59.6 percent in 2013 and 57.4 percent in 2012, the MLR said.
On a recent round of inspections to check compliance with the new environmental law, the MEP found numerous violations, including falsification of pollution reports.
In one case reported by Xinhua this month, a sewage treatment plant in Beijing's suburbs switched water samples, submitted forged data and allowed dead fish to accumulate in its tanks.
The MEP findings suggest that huge gaps persist between principles and practice in the anti-pollution campaign.
The laxity of local officials in enforcement has been "a major contributing factor to the environmental crisis," Gardner told RFA.
Some complicity is to be expected, given the long supremacy of GDP growth as a priority and the influence of local business interests.
Those factors may account for the intimidating approach taken by the State Council in threatening officials with damage to their careers.
Reactions at the local level are hard to predict at a time when cadres are already fearful of the central government's ever-widening campaign against corruption.
Analysts say that officials have been stunned into inaction by the sweeping investigations of the CPC's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), making the bureaucracy wary of change.
Sending mixed messages
The central government has also sent mixed messages about which priority officials should pursue as their primary imperative.
While environmental concerns may be elevated, Premier Li recently blasted northeastern officials for contributing to the economic slowdown by delaying major projects.
Although officials have been ordered to cut pollution and industrial overcapacity, some provinces in the region reported first-quarter GDP growth as low as 1.9 percent.
Local governments are likely to be torn between pressure for new projects to reignite growth and the possibility of punishment if they add to pollution.
The collision of government concerns may raise doubts about how hard the new guidelines will press local officials on the environment in the near term.
"To me, it should be read merely as an exclamation point meant to signal the state's serious determination to tackle environmental pollution and to persuade officials to contribute by doing their jobs," Gardner said.
"But really, will lifetime accountability be enforced? Can it be enforced? Not likely," he said.
For one thing, GDP is more easily measured than environmental conditions. For another, the government can hardly blame local officials for pollution from past projects that were pursued under previous policies.
Such considerations raise the question of whether the new accountability rules will be applied retroactively or only to future projects.
If past project decisions are exempted, the threat to evaluate officials on their environmental performance may have little near-term effect.
In a web posting, The Climate Group, a London-based non-profit organization, hailed the government's guidelines as "tough," saying they are designed to "ensure its targets are stuck to by government officials."
"What is left is implementation and enforcement," the group's greater China director, Changhua Wu, said.