The mayor of Huizhou, Li Ruqiu, likes to tell a story that he believes highlights the southern Chinese city's environmental credentials. A $4.3 billion petrochemical joint venture between Chinese energy giant CNOOC and Anglo-Dutch firm Shell -- one of the largest ever foreign deals in China -- was halted suddenly when developers found a bird's nest. "The company would rather postpone the construction process, wait for the two eggs to be hatched and for the birds to fly away, before they resumed construction," he said. The tree was, of course, later destroyed.
The question of whether China can move beyond such nods to environmental protection and create a genuinely green model is a huge challenge for the country, amid increasing worries growth is being stifled by terrible pollution. The southern province of Guangdong -- for many years the centrepeice of China's no-holds-barred, heavily-polluting growth model -- is a crucial testing ground for this upgrade and this city of 3.6 million is at the forefront. Huizhou's city center is full of beautifully maintained lakes and a tree-lined river more like a European capital than the hastily constructed nearby cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou. The city even organizes fish-releasing ceremonies into the main river to promote a culture of conservation.
Alongside such measures, Huizhou is also becoming one of China's petrochemical and energy hubs, with ambitious plans for several refineries at Daya Bay, a coastal area about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from downtown. Li is adamant such expansion, which will see huge areas of the sea reclaimed, would not compromise the city's environment."Petrochemicals are generally considered a highly polluting industry, but as long as you use new technologies and new materials, the problem can absolutely be solved," he told foreign reporters on a recent visit. Li said the city has rejected 700 proposals for new business in the last two years over pollution worries.
The Shell-CNOOC plant is a state-of-the-art facility, processing 800,000 tons of ethylene a year, a crucial chemical for making packaging that is used in the endless toy, clothes and electronics factories that populate Guangdong. When announced, the project drew criticism from green groups in nearby Hong Kong, but much of it has tapered off. Li said the air quality in Daya Bay is better that in Huizhou's city center.
Southern China's manufacturing boom over the last 30 years has left a dreadful environmental legacy. The endless rows of factories throughout Guangdong's Pearl River Delta have often operated without strict supervision and now the region's air and water quality are dire. This has become a major problem in Hong Kong, where the city is shrouded in a haze for large chunks of the year, much of it caused by Guangdong factories. Governments on both sides of the border -- Hong Kong and mainland China operate separate political and legal systems -- have pledged to take measures to clean up the filthy air. State media have reported improvement in the past year in Guangdong's air quality, but much of that could be a result of factories shuttered because of the global economic downturn.
However, there are tentative signs that tough decisions -- such as those already made by Li -- are being made by senior leaders. Last month, officials confirmed that a $9 billion joint venture between Sinopec, one of the China's most powerful firms, and Kuwait Petroleum Cor. would be moved from the original site. The site, in Nansha district, was close to heavily built-up areas near the regional capital of Guangzhou and just 37 kilometers from Hong Kong.
The refinery will still go ahead, but Guangdong's Communist Party chief, Wang Yang, made an unusual admission that pressure from environmental groups in China and Hong Kong had forced the relocation. "The question of balancing economic growth with environmental protection is indeed a very challenging one," said Wang, who is often touted as a future top leader. To highlight how difficult the relocation would be, Wang pointed out the original Nansha site had already received approval from the state council, one of China's top decision-making bodies.
Edward Chan, Greenpeace's China campaign manager, said the decision showed a tentative step forward in the thorny struggle between balancing growth and environmental fears. "It shows that Chinese leaders are responding to concerns from the community both from mainland China and from Hong Kong," he said.
Zhou Yongzhang, director of Sun Yat-sen University's Environment research centre in Guangzhou, said officials were now prepared to take tough decisions rather than simply gesturing to the green lobby, even if it meant slowing growth in the short-term. "Because the province's environment is limited, officials now take more precautions when it comes to mega projects, and their attitudes are more serious," he said.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009