International Herald Tribune
The politics of pollution
Monday, November 27, 2006

Progress - or lack of it - in combating pollution speaks volumes about the effectiveness of government in Asia.

Take Hong Kong, which is supposedly well run, advanced and rich. Even Merrill Lynch is now warning that the city is losing business as international companies flinch from subjecting senior employees and their families to the health hazards of this often smog-enveloped city.

A complacent administration makes green noises but does little. It blames mainland factories or suggests that other cities in China are far worse. But a look from the surrounding hills down on the center of Hong Kong shows how much of the pollution in the center is home-generated.

Hong Kong must compete not just with Chinese cities but with much cleaner places - from Tokyo to Sydney to Singapore - yet it subscribes to outdated pollution standards and the chief executive suggests that particulates are not bad for your health.

Why the inaction by an administration that claims to be decisive? It is partly the inertia of a bureaucracy unwilling to admit its own failings. But more important are the links between the administration and the business interests that resist effective action. These are the businessmen who dominate the political structure and provide the chief executive with much of his political support. Their companies offer highly paid cushy jobs to retiring senior officials.

So the power companies carry on maximizing profits by burning coal. The bus and trucking companies continue to use diesel, the ferry and shipping companies continue to belch black smoke into the crowded harbor. Business and bureaucratic interests press for more highways in the heart of the city. A relatively poor Guangdong is now doing more than Hong Kong to reduce emissions.

The bottom line of Hong Kong's situation is that the chief executive is beholden to Beijing when it comes to politics, and on other matters, to a local elite. There is a direct connection between the lack of representative government and inertia in fighting pollution.

A barrage of public complaints is met with words not deeds. The contrast between Hong Kong and advanced East Asia cities such as Seoul and Tokyo is stunning. Even impoverished Dhaka, Bangladesh, has done more to cut urban air pollution.

Indonesia's problems are very different, but again the triumph of money over the environment is evident in the fires that are said to have contributed 10 percent to the global emissions total this year. The smoke has disrupted life in Malaysia and Singapore as well as large parts of Indonesia.

Indonesia may be democratic but public interests are more often than not sidelined in favor of commercial ones, especially in remote areas. Even in crowded Java, a recent catastrophic mud flow showed that environmental and rural concerns are given scant regard by a politically well-connected oil explorer.

That the fires recur annually despite promises from Jakarta is testimony to the weakness of administration everywhere, but especially in the more remote regions. In some areas, the generally desirable decentralization of power from Jakarta has led to increased corruption and lawlessness.

Clearing for the benefit of forest- based industries never completely stopped but more recently the boom in biodiesel has led to a surge in clearing for oil palm, the most cost-effective source of this supposedly green fuel. Forest products have also seen a price boom.

No one would accuse clean and green Singapore of lacking the means as well as will to put public interest before private profit. But neither Singapore nor Malaysia should complain too much about the smoke given that the forest and plantation interests that are the ultimate beneficiaries of many of the fires are based there, not in Indonesia. Malaysian forest and plantation companies have, at best, mixed environmental records.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have shown sufficient combination of popular pressure and administrative ability to make major strides in cleaning up cities and industries. But can China, whose cities now suffer the worst pollution in the world?

It will indeed be perhaps the biggest test for the Communist Party since reform began 25 years ago. Can the government justify its continued grip on power by showing as much determination to halt environmental degradation and the resulting health problems as in suppressing dissent? Or will the commercial interests of local power holders - the local party bosses who also sit on boards - cancel out orders from Beijing based on the alarming findings of the central government's experts?

If the little rich kid, Hong Kong, is so loath to put public health above private profit, what hope is there for the mainland? Can the central government show that it is in control? Or will the public eventually rebel against the notion that private profit and even job creation are more important than health?