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China released its environment white paper yesterday, highlighting the nation's persistent efforts in environmental protection in the past decade and the daunting tasks required to improve the situation in the decades to come.

We recognize the increasing importance the government and the public have attached to this vital issue.

Environmental protection has become an unswerving national policy.

The government is constantly making a greater input in this field, with environmental protection laws becoming more comprehensive and effective. Meanwhile, the government is taking heed of public opinion, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are playing a more active role in a country that lacks an NGO tradition.

There are many statistics to support such claims.

The central government has established and is implementing a development philosophy that balances economic growth and environmental well-being.

While these efforts point to the nation's strong determination to stem the tide of environmental degradation, the situation, as the white paper points out, remains "grave" and ecological problems are worsening in some places.

China's basic economic, demographic and resource conditions determine we will have a long and painful way to go before the situation can be substantially improved.

We have to support one-fifth of the world's population with about 7 percent of the world's farmland. And we as a developing country are faced with a more severe challenge of economic development.

Those facts aside, we must admit that the major problem lies in our failure to implement a balanced and environmentally friendly mode of development.

In some places, economic growth is put before environmental protection. "Pollute first, control later" remains the de facto philosophy of some local governments.

More serious are the traditional political career assessment rules for government officials that favour instant gross domestic product growth over balanced development.

Now the central leadership is pushing for a major change in this assessment system. But this will take time to materialize.

The other side of the story is our weak implementation of the law.

As long as many punitive stipulations for damaging the environment are lenient, they cannot be seriously respected and implemented in some cases.

If such trends continue, efforts from the government, enterprises, NGOs and the public to save our environment risk being undermined and our sincerity for this cause will be cast into doubt.

(China Daily June 6, 2006)

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