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Mao's Home Province Goes Green
Mara Hvistendahl, 26 Dec 07
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The China Daily reports on a campaign to make three cities in Hunan, Mao’s home province, test zones for energy-saving and environmental protection strategies. Changsha, Zhuzhou, and Xiangtan will be singled out for improvements in public transportation, energy efficiency, and pollution treatment:

The provincial government will help the three cities build energy-saving, environmentally friendly industries, and make them more beautiful and livable.

Changsha will coordinate with its partner cities in sectors including infrastructure construction, pollution treatment and energy supply, said its mayor Zhang Jianfei yesterday.

Zhuzhou will protect its farmland and build leisure industries while strengthening efforts to improve the environment, said its mayor Chen Junwen.

Xiangtan will encourage the development of its hi-tech industries and make better use of its "cultural resources" - being the hometown of revolutionary leaders like Mao, said its mayor Yu Aiguo.

The announcement comes from the provincial government but has the backing of the National Development and Reform Commission and the central government, which often approaches development through the creation of demonstration areas. In the 1980s, Beijing spurred economic growth by introducing market reforms and trade incentives to a handful of “special economic zones.”

The approach is more complex when it comes to implementing environmental changes that can carry up-front costs and prove politically unpopular. A case in point is China’s much-hyped eco-cities, mostly foreign-driven projects that follow the demonstration city model. It appears that several of them are now being foiled by real estate developers and other interest groups.

Still, ambitious local initiatives are a welcome supplement to China’s sweeping nationwide reforms. Beijing has set some notable environmental targets, but these are difficult to enforce at the local level -- for a country with a strong central authority, China can be remarkably fragmented. (The New York Times recently ran a feature on the skirting of energy rules in the countryside that nicely draws out the local-national divide.) If the central government can enlist local officials by devoting money and attention to specific cities, its chances of success are much higher.

And if successful, local projects could serve as a model for other cities. China’s special economic zones have yielded such impressive results that several other developing countries have copied them.

Finally, it’s notable that these cities are in Mao’s backyard. The China Daily doesn’t, of course, dwell on this, but Mao was no patron saint of environmental causes. China still suffers the effects of the heavy industry, widespread deforestation, and unsustainable farming tactics introduced during his rule. Earlier this year, Hunan officials were singled out for looking the other way when factories polluted the local water supply by releasing arsenide into the Xinqiang River. If government officials are now using Mao's image to clean up the province, more power to them.

Image credit: Flickr/NewChengdu

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