BEIJING – Last month, President Xi Jinping told the mayor of Suzhou, who had outlined a plan to make improvements on the water quality of the city’s lakes, that for China’s netizens, the best measure of acceptable water quality would be to see whether the mayor dared to jump in and swim.
In February, a resident from Zhejiang Province, eastern China, challenged the directors of the local environmental protection bureau to swim in the polluted river. Since then, it has set off a frenzy among the Chinese public, with many people asking their mayors or environmental officials to swim in the rivers or drink the underground water.
Qian Jianmin, the mayor of Shaoxing city in Zhejiang Province was the first official to rise to the challenge, saying he would “swim in any section of the moat surrounding Shaoxing city.” Since then, whether or not officials agree to take a dip in local lakes or rivers has become the new reference to assess the water quality.
Li Zuojun, deputy head of the State Council’s Development Research Center, weighed in on the debate, saying "The fact that Internet users ask mayors to swim in rivers reflects the seriousness of China's pollution issue, but also shows the rising anxiety and discontent among the public over this issue. This is the way people express their dissatisfaction but also their expectation that the authorities will take action to tackle the problem and improve the environment."
Reforming ain’t easy
According to Li, in a society where the government plays such an important role, the government is all-powerful, shouldering great responsibilities and the public's expectation to deal with any economic and social problems.
The cause of China's grim environmental situation is in fact the pursuit of economic growth. "Because of the GDP-oriented official performance appraisal system, which has yet to be reformed, local governments dedicate all their energy to pursuing economic growth instead of focusing on the environment or their constituents’ quality of life,” explains Li.
Li says there are two key things that need to change: the way the government functions, and the local governments performance appraisal system. Local governments need to shift from being economy-oriented to society-oriented, while the government needs to shift from being authority-orientated to service-oriented.
Unfortunately, says Li, local governments will not take the initiative to transform themselves, because of their blind pursuit of GDP growth, which hinders all possibility of political achievement. Also, it’s easier for governments to tackle economic issues than to focus on the environment and quality of life. It will take a lot of courage from the central government determination to reform this.