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9 Mar, 2014

Xinhua Insight: End to GDP obsession frees Chinese officials to pursue environmental drive

BEIJING, March 8 (Xinhua) — Chinese Premier Li Keqiang‘s first government work report has been welcomed as the latest in a series of high-level announcements placing the emphasis for officials’ assessments on broader criteria than just GDP.

In steering such evaluations away from an obsession with economic growth, the series of decrees have given local officials more freedom to pursue crucial but relatively unprofitable missions, especially green issues.

The work report accordingly brought more relief than pressure to Zhang Wenxin, deputy head of the Manchu Autonomous County of Xinbin in northeast China’s Liaoning Province.

“Now we can really focus on the environment,” said Zhang, who has been in charge of Xinbin’s environmental protection for years.

His area of jurisdiction is of sizeable importance to China’s green drive. Less than an hour’s drive from Xinbin lies the Dahuofang reservoir, the biggest of its kind in Liaoning Province. The county also boasts a large acreage of forests developed to play a role in water conservation.

However, Zhang’s work had not exactly been on track until recently because of notorious provincial pressures to make money at the expense of almost everything else.

“Local officials used to set their eyes solely on gross regional product and local revenues,” said the staunch forty-something.

“But things are changing now. You cannot say you did a good job with a degraded environment, no matter how much revenue you bring in,” he added.

Change began to kick in years ago, but it has only really become meaningful once the central leadership weighed in.

“We should never judge a cadre simply by the growth of GDP,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said during a meeting on the work of personnel resources in June last year.

In December, the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee scrapped GDP-obsessed assessments in China’s official evaluation system, putting greater emphasis instead on indices related to wasted resources, environmental protection, excess capacity and production safety.

Evaluation of scientific innovation, education, culture, employment, social insurance and health were also encouraged.

And in a draft government work report delivered to lawmakers for review on Wednesday, Premier Li said, “We will improve the system for evaluating officials’ performance and get everyone involved in a common endeavor to accelerate transformation of the growth model, make structural adjustment and achieve sound development.

“This will steadily increase employment and personal incomes, improve the environment, and make China’s economic and social development more efficient, equitable and sustainable.”

The shift in focus has prompted changes.

In the southwestern province of Guizhou, poverty alleviation has replaced gross regional product as the main indicator in official assessment in 13 impoverished counties, in anticipation that the experiments could eventually be duplicated in other parts of the province.

In Nanjing, capital of the eastern province of Jiangsu, emphases are placed on employment and energy intensity. According to Xie Zhicheng, head of the Nanjing Economic and Information Technology Commission, the city has vowed to cut coal consumption by 3 percent this year.

Comparing the official evaluation system to an examination, Xiao Xingzhi, a professor with the Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, said the revamped system would play a guiding role in the work of local officials.

“It’s like a test. You raise the scores in sections linked to people’s wellbeing and ecology, and officials will try harder there,” Xiao said.

Zhang Wenxin agrees. “Local governments used to advertise that we want both the ‘gold mountain’ and the ‘green mountain’,” he said, referring to regional economic growth and ecological preservation.

“Now we say, the ‘green mountain’ is the ‘gold mountain’.”

To protect the environment, Xinbin has already shut down 42 heavily polluting enterprises, and has raised the environmental requirements that prospective business projects have to meet before approval.

“This will have some impact on investment in the county and our tax revenues, but after all we are now under less pressure on economic growth,” Zhang said.