Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

New Beijing Chief Vows to Finally Win Fight Against Pollution

  • Non-essential entities and polluters need to be relocated
  • Capital’s destiny ‘evermore intertwined’ with ruling party

Beijing’s new top official vowed to tackle the city’s smog problem, a simmering cause of discontent among China’s expanding middle class.

Cai Qi, the Communist Party chief in the capital, told a gathering of local delegates Monday that the metropolis of 22 million must slash pollution levels to “win the battle against pollution.” He pledged to cut levels of the most hazardous airborne particulate by 30 percent over the next five years, while pushing polluters and “non-essential” services out to “display the image of a major country’s capital city.”

The speech to Beijing’s municipal party congress -- one of dozens of regional meetings being held ahead of a planned reshuffle of the national leadership later this year -- comes less than a month after Cai’s promotion. A former subordinate of President Xi Jinping, Cai, 61, is among the local leaders being watched for possible advancement at the upcoming gathering, in which scores of top political officials are expected to be replaced.

Beijing’s leaders for years have been frustrated in efforts to clear chronic pollution that has prompted criticism on social media, unflattering global headlines and occasional safety alerts. Former Mayor Wang Anshun, who vowed in 2014 to present his own head to the Chinese leadership if smog wasn’t brought under control by 2017, was far short of the goal when he was transferred to another job in October. Wang had also once described Beijing as “not a livable city.”

‘Critical Juncture’

Li Shuo, a Beijing-based adviser at Greenpeace East Asia, said the fight against pollution was at a “critical juncture” and required a more coordinated response from regional authorities. Cai outlined a series of air pollution targets in January during a stint as Beijing’s mayor, the city’s No. 2 post.

“A concerning situation started from late last year, when the trend toward improving air pollution seemed to be put on hold, a trend very much linked to ramped-up industrial activities,” Li said. “A lot of the efforts and progress made during the past few years could be reversed unless there are real measures on the ground.”

Despite some improvement, Beijing’s pollution readings often reach 10 to 20 times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum day-long exposure limit. Even a 30 percent reduction over the next five years would leave average pollution levels above that mark.

‘Iron Hand’

Chinese officials have urged patience amid growing public frustration. In March, Premier Li Keqiang said the government planned to “make the skies blue again,” echoing Xi’s earlier vow to fight pollution with an “iron hand.”

Cai’s plans dovetail with existing efforts to cap Beijing’s population and fuse the capital with the adjacent regions of Tianjin and Hebei, for a region of 130 million people. In April, the government announced efforts to build a city called the Xiongan New Area about two hours to the south of the capital, drawing state-owned enterprises and property speculators to what’s now a sleepy backwater known for its orchard and lotus flowers. 

A banner draped in the auditorium for Cai’s speech said, “Unite more tightly around the party center with comrade Xi Jinping at its core to construct a first-rate, international and livable city.”

Pledging Loyalty

Like other regional party chiefs, Cai, pledged loyalty to Xi, whom he had served under for much of the past two decades. “We must use his speeches as a constant reference, understand their essence, and follow the guidance in all aspects of our work,” Cai said.

Xi was designated the party’s “core” leader in October, enhancing his ability to push his agenda and promote favored officials during the upcoming reshuffle, scheduled for the fourth quarter of the year. The event will determine his ability to preserve his influence into the next decade.

Cai was named acting Beijing mayor last year after serving on Xi’s National Security Commission. He previously worked in the eastern province of Zhejiang and southeastern Fujian while Xi held leadership roles there. Since 1991, all Beijing party secretaries have held seats on the elite 25-member Politburo.

Cai said Beijing must use technology to uphold national security while prioritizing “political security.” He pledged to impose greater discipline on the local party apparatus and foster an “honest and righteous political climate.”

“We are living in a great era,” Cai said. “As the capital of a great socialist country striding toward renewal, Beijing’s development is evermore intertwined with the destiny of the party and country.”

— With assistance by Peter Martin, and Ken Wills

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