For the local and provincial environmental authorities, this means their chances of meeting their air quality targets, set by the State Council five years ago, are getting slimmer.
In 2013, in a five-year action plan on the prevention and control of air pollution, the State Council set a target of cutting the level of fine particulate matter in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Province region by 25 percent by the end of 2017. As the time to review the success of the action plan draws near, local and central environmental authorities are stepping up their efforts, including launching tough environmental inspection campaigns.
China's air quality has improved in recent years as the country has done more to counter pollution. However, the trend has been reversed this year. According to MEP statistics, in the first six months of 2017, the PM2.5 density of 28 key cities in northern and central China rose by 5.4 percent year on year, the first time the density has gone up since 2013.
In some cities, such as Taiyuan in Shanxi Province and Shijiazhuang in Hebei, PM2.5 density rose by over 30 percent. Experts say these statistics indicate that it will be difficult for the targets to be met.
In September 2013, China's State Council introduced the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, which proposed improving overall air quality across the nation over five years, reducing heavy pollution by a large margin and making obvious improvements to air quality in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
Specifically, by 2017, the level of inhalable particulate matter in cities above prefecture level should drop by at least 10 percent against 2012 levels and the days with good air quality should be increased year on year. The level of fine particulate matter in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta will be cut by 25 percent, 20 percent and 15 percent respectively and the annual concentration of fine particulate matter in Beijing will be kept at 60 micrograms per cubic meter, according to Xinhua.
Five years later, experts and local officials say these targets will very likely be missed. A report by China's National Academy of Development and Strategy at Renmin University, published this January, said that even if the area surrounding Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cut carbon emissions simultaneously, the majority of the area still won't be able to fulfill the targets of the 2013 action plan. If the surrounding area does not cut carbon emissions, then the entire area won't be able to meet the target.
Wang Zhongxia, vice chief of Handan's environmental protection bureau, said that according to the action plan, the PM2.5 density in Handan, one of the most polluted cities in Hebei, should drop 30 percent from 2013 levels, which averaged 139 micrograms per cubic meter, in 2017.
From January to July this year, the average PM2.5 density in Handan was 86 micrograms per cubic meter, 38.1 percent down from its 2013 level. However, since PM2.5 density usually rises significantly in autumn and winter, it is still uncertain whether the annual average will be low enough.
"It's a daunting task," Wang said after a meeting in his bureau on August 24. "I haven't slept for two nights."
Hebei capital Shijiazhuang is also finding it difficult to meet the targets. Last year, the city government set a target to lower its PM2.5 density by 20 percent this year from 2016.
Counter to its expectations, in January and February, Shijiazhuang's PM2.5 density surged by a staggering 70 percent, mainly due to unfavorable weather conditions, according to local officials. From January to July, the PM2.5 density in Shijiazhuang rose 20 percent year on year.
"The difficulty is beyond normal," said Yang Wenbin, vice secretary general of the Shijiazhuang government.
In order to pressure local authorities, the MEP has launched a series of inspections since the start of this year.
Apart from regular inspections, in April, the ministry selected 5,600 inspectors from 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities across China to carry out special inspections in 28 cities to check on the implementation of pollution control targets and emission standards, said the ministry. According to the ministry, the year-long inspection is "the biggest campaign on the national level in the history of China's environmental protection."
Inspectors will also examine the investigation and closure of polluting businesses, seasonal reductions or cessation of production in certain industries, and the installation and operation of pollution monitoring and control devices, Xinhua reported.
The air quality of the 28 cities, including Beijing, Tianjin and 26 cities in Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong and Henan provinces, is seen as a critical barometer for the overall air quality of northern China. In a press conference this January, Chen Jining, then Minister of Environmental Protection, said while these provinces and municipalities only occupy 7.2 percent of China's area, they make up 33 percent of China's coal consumption and their water consumption is four times the national average.
Among the 5,600 inspectors, 3,000 were from Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, while the other 2,600 were from the rest of China. These inspectors will carry out 25 rounds of inspections, each lasting 2 weeks.
Under the radar
Many businesses on the inspectors' radar are small, family-run firms operating with poor environmental standards. Many have never even acquired manufacturing or quality licenses, let alone environmental ones.
Officials say these businesses are the most difficult to regulate. "They can reappear at any time. After a crackdown, they will start operating secretly after the inspectors are gone," Wang Jing (pseudonym), an environmental official from the Hebei city of Tangshan, said.
Another environmental officer from Hebei said these businesses are often too small and remote for inspectors to spot. "It's like when you clean your home, there is always dirt hidden somewhere you cannot find," he said.
Local governments are asking citizens to report these businesses to the authorities, and offering incentives such as cash rewards. "We've been mobilizing everyone in society to join in the inspection," Feng Tao, an officer from Handan's environmental protection bureau, told news portal jiemian.com.
In order to prevent these small firms from secretly operating again, the MEP has asked local governments to cut off their water and electricity supplies and confiscate their inventory of raw materials, equipment and products.
By August 24, it had been discovered that 35,029 small businesses in Handan have environmental issues. The Handan government has ordered 19,966 of them to be closed, 32 to be relocated, and 15,031 to make rectifications.
Experts say the fact that the MEP inspectors come from outside means the central government is able to minimize to role of local corruption in the inspection process.
"It is sometimes difficult for local environmental bureaus, constrained by local governments, to effectively supervise local businesses. This won't hamper the work of inspectors dispatched by the central government," Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told jiemian.com.
Wang said the inspection teams both bring pressure and help shoulder the burden of local environment officials who often struggle to enforce the law. Businesses pay more respect to central government inspection teams than they do to local officers.
"We are only responsible for spotting problems," Jia Wei, an environmental officer from Shenyang, Liaoning Province who headed inspections in Tangshan, told jiemian.com.
He said that once the team finishes inspecting an area, they will report the issues to the MEP via an app. But it is a local environmental protection bureau's responsibility to supervise the rectification.
According to the MEP, by August 20, the special inspection campaign has inspected 40,925 businesses and spotted 22,620 problematic firms.
The ministry's next step will be to introduce regulations to seek the accountability of local Party officials and governments, so as to ensure that the local authorities carry out the environmental protection tasks handled to them by the MEP. These tasks include supervising problematic businesses' rectification.
A draft regulation has already been issued to this effect, and some have dubbed it the toughest measure so far to ensure the accountability of local officials.
As a local environmental protection official, Wang says that the new regulations have put pressure on him. But he admits that he can see no other way to fight pollution.