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Don't Politicize Air Quality
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It is improper to reward officials on the improvement of air quality, says a commentary in Beijing News. An excerpt follows:

The provincial bureaus of environmental protection and finance in Shanxi Province established a policy recently providing that major officials and related personnel can receive as much as 2 million yuan in incentives if the cities move up in the air quality list.

Clean air is an important factor in quality of life. Therefore the city government has the responsibility to reduce and control air pollution and improve air quality. Officials have the responsibility to curb the deterioration of air quality and there is no need to reward them for improvements.

This new policy is a measure to improve the province's image on environmental protection. In other words, air quality has become a political performance criterion for the superior government to assess lower-level officials. It shows that officials are responsible only to their superiors instead of the public.

In the past, the core criterion to evaluate officials was the increase in GDP. Some regions used to reward officials who attracted good investment. As a result, some local officials chose to sacrifice the environment for economic growth.

In recent years, environmental factors have more weight in the political performance assessment system. The Shanxi Province decision reflects such a trend. But the top-to-bottom assessment framework has not changed. Thus it may not achieve the desired results.

Under such a system, local officials may use administrative power to pursue the criteria valued by their superiors. To improve air quality is a good thing, but some officials may pursue it with the same measures they used to pursue GDP growth.

They may shut down legal factories, ban vehicles or force the public to modify heating facilities. Local officials may be rewarded for this but the public has to pay the price.

(China Daily May 15, 2007)

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