Environment becomes a priority

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Public focus has shifted in recent years, especially with heavy smog in the capital.

Journalists usually report social changes, but sometimes they signify the changes themselves.

Recently, journalists flocking to a news conference on the environment outnumbered - for the first time - those at the conference about the economy on the sidelines of the ongoing annual meetings that bring together Beijing's legislators and political advisers.

Li Xiaosong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport, takes questions from journalists at a news conference during the annual session of the city's legislature on Thursday in Beijing. [China Daily]

Li Xiaosong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport, takes questions from journalists at a news conference during the annual session of the city's legislature on Thursday in Beijing. [China Daily] 

That reflects the shifting focus of the public: Beijingers increasingly care about the environment instead of economic growth.

Fang Li, spokesman for the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, was the media's most-wanted man.

One hour before a news conference by Fang on Thursday, about 100 journalists were waiting in the media room discussing air pollution and busily preparing their questions.

The conference lasted 75 minutes, but reporters still had questions to ask. Fang was surrounded by nearly 20 reporters when he was about to leave the room.

Fang's great popularity was in contrast with what happened at another news conference a day earlier, when fewer journalists showed up to hear the spokesman of the Beijing Commission of Development and Reform. It lasted no more than an hour.

In recent years, the environment has become a hot issue among residents and media alike, especially after the heavy smog that has hung around the capital since the beginning of January.

Fang told China Daily after the conference that residents keeping an eye on environmental protection is good for the bureau's work.

"The greater attention has indeed brought us much pressure, but also motivation. Every measure we took against pollution can turn into a hot topic among residents," he said.

"It is not bad for us, because it means the public has attached importance to our work. Our pressure is mainly from how to develop our measures better and more effectively," he added.

Fang said the government's goal is to make sure residents can enjoy the blue skies they witnessed in 2008 when the Beijing Olympics were held and the city took strict measures that succeeded in greatly improving air quality.

Yu Lixiao, a senior journalist from China News Service, remembered that the hottest topic in 2011 was real estate and last year it became PM2.5, or airborne particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

"Our agency has focused on the environment instead of how fast the capital's economy has developed recently. After all, our readers, or residents, have changed their focus," she added.

The attention has not only targeted the environmental protection bureau, but also other administrations related to the issue, such as gardening and water, in the two sessions.

Meanwhile, some deputies whose work does not specialize in the environment also gave suggestions on dealing with pollution.

Liu Yingjian, a member of the Beijing committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said he has focused more on air pollution caused by automobile exhaust for a long time. Liu is the founder and chairman of Hanvon, a developer of computer typewriting technologies.

He said what he is most concerned about is where the pollutants in the capital come from and how to control them. He added other deputies also talked about the issue with him.

Wang Zhaoxing, a deputy to the Beijing Municipal People's Congress, the city's legislature, said on Tuesday that environmental problems will also affect business. Wang worked with the China Banking Regulatory Commission.

"Only after Beijing becomes a livable city will more foreigners and enterprises come," he said.

In 2012, the city spent 6.33 billion yuan ($1.01 billion) to develop energy conservation and environmental protection, a 28 percent increase over 2011, according to the government's budget report.

The funding will increase 3 percent in 2013 to more than 6.5 billion yuan, the report said.

Jiang Heng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, said the change of focus on the environmental protection issue was because of the economic growth path.

"In the past, economic growth was put first, which could bring environmental problems. After years of accumulation, those problems emerged now," she said.

"The severe pollution could harm the reputation of Beijing as well as the soft power of the country," she added.

Li Bo, a director of Friends of Nature, an NGO in Beijing, echoed Jiang, saying the environmental protection groups in the capital received more and more attention after the Beijing Olympic Games, especially in the past two years.

The attention from media and the public was good but it also caused many environmental issues to become controversial as the government was reluctant to answer inquiries from the public.

For example, it is hard for a citizen to get accurate information about food safety or other issues as government departments do not disclose such information.

Li said Beijing's severe pollution in January offered a good chance for society to face the problem.

"Previously, we had a lot of excuses for the pollution. But now we have no choice because bad air affects all of us," he said.

The government should try to call for participation from the public and that's the most effective way to tackle the problem, he added.

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