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A man wearing a mask walks past trees shrouded with pollution haze in Beijing on March 27. / Andy Wong, AP

BEIJING - A senior Chinese government official has admitted that most major Chinese cities fail national standards for good air quality.

Li Ganjie, a vice minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, gave a positive spin to the launch of the 2013 Report on the State of China's Environment, but did not disguise all its bad news on the severe levels of air, water and soil pollution brought by years of fast-paced economic growth.

And the real situation is far worse, warned Ma Tianjie, China program director for Greenpeace, an environmental lobbying group. "We have to look at the annual state of environment report with a pinch of salt, as the monitoring capacity of the MEP is always limited," said Ma.

Only three cities, or 4.1%, of the 74 major Chinese cities subject to air quality standards met the national standard for good air quality in 2013, Li told a news conference in China's capital on Wednesday. The trio are Haikou, capital of the southern island province of Hainan; Zhoushan, an island in eastern China; and Lhasa, the high-altitude capital of Tibet.

Almost 70% of the remaining 256 cities met old air quality standards that do not measure smaller, more hazardous pollutants - known as PM2.5 - that are so tiny they can enter the bloodstream through the lungs. The report showed seven of the 10 most polluted cities last year are located in north China's Hebei Province.

Major sources of China's smog include coal-reliant industries, power plants and rising automobile emissions. China issued a five-year action plan on air pollution last September. And earlier this week, it pledged to cap its carbon emissions by 2016, although it did not provide detailed figures for the cap.

Public protests are usually forbidden and quickly crushed in Communist-run China, as was the case on Wednesday, the 25th anniversary of the bloody, June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

By contrast, environmental protests in China have enjoyed unusual leeway nationwide, as residents take to the streets to complain about industrial projects they fear will harm their health.

Recent demonstrations over planned waste incineration plants stem from distrust fanned by poor official planning, illegal procedures, lack of transparency and failure to allow public participation, said Li.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called for innovation to protect China's environment. "We'll intensify efforts to protect the natural ecosystem and environment, spare no effort to solve issues, including the haze, and work hard to build a beautiful China with a blue sky, green land and clean water," Xi told a conference Tuesday.

Critical responses to the 2013 report included a micro-blog post by Beijing writer Yang Bo. "If we can't guarantee good air and safe food, what do we have to brag about?" Yang wrote on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform.

Water pollution remains severe, the government admitted. Yet their data, from limited monitoring sites, targeted only at a limited set of pollutants, inadequately reflects the scale of the crisis, said Greenpeace's Ma. Extremely poor ground water quality is "very concerning, as northern cities especially rely on ground water," he said.

The environment ministry now "has more tools at its disposal to do a better job," including a strengthened environmental protection law, said Ma. But enforcement remains difficult in a system where government officials have long prioritized growth and ignored the negative impact, he said.

Contributing: Sunny Yang



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: China admits to failures over air quality

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