Thursday, 18 May 2017

In Local China, Not All Cleanup Campaigns Are About Corruption

The half-year campaign to clean up Crescent Lake [月牙湖] in Nanjing is very nearly complete.

Much of the time, that sort of news doesn't merit anything more than local media coverage or government pronouncements about achievements. The Establishment Narrative about China from outside China (or the Beltway) seeks sharper fare to feed on—environmental activists sounding off and being rounded up, public protests about pollution, exposés about toxic landscapes and poisoned children, or Beijing with its noxious air nonetheless somehow leading the world on climate change. That Narrative focuses on the grassroots and the grave discontent purportedly lurking in the social soil, not the government and its attempts to problem-solve.

Those are important stories, but they’re not the whole book. Policies pursued by local officials to improve The Nearby in China—which is what really matters to residents and underpins legitimacy [合法性]—deserve notice and, as in the present instance, praise.

For the past year or so now, Nanjing has been cleaning up its waterways. Some of the motivation for that initiative has been an aging infrastructure, and the demands of a growing population alongside efforts to incorporate adjoining land.

But it’s also more complicated. Nanjing not only needs more drinking water for residents; it wants to make sure that the water it has and gets is better managed—cleaner, as well as easier to control in the event of the sort of flooding that plagued the city and surrounding areas last year. City officials have noted in recent months the importance of mitigating the overflowing of rivers and streams in Nanjing’s eastern section, near Purple Mountain and adjacent natural and historical habitats. They know that the city has a water problem.

The easiest approach would have been to pull down a lot of trees; denude the landscape to construct conduits, sluice gates, and concrete watercourses; and work to capture and channel the flow in a large-scale, high-profile project.

Instead, Nanjing planners focused on the downstream—literally. 

Officials here recognized, after extensive consultation with local scientists and other experts, that if there was going to be a large-scale investment of funds and other resources, the city needed to go all-in, and do the essential micro-work: Demolish illegal structures bordering waterways (including the Qinhuai District office of the city’s Sanitation Bureau built near a local canal); tear down toilets and dry cleaners adjacent to canals to stop emissions; and not only clean up bodies of water in the municipal area, but make sure they stayed that way by increasing patrols to enforce regulations and setting up centrally-controlled systems to monitor Nanjing’s many water places.

That’s why there’s been a cleanup of Crescent Lake: It’s part of this general strategy to upgrade the city’s waterways as a whole, instead of just fixing part of the problem.

And the Crescent Lake project itself has been a massive effort.

According to the aforementioned account in Wednesday’s Nanjing Daily, 460,000 cubic meters of silt were removed, equivalent to 30,000 large truckloads. The lake was drained, dredged, and a 200 square meter island for migrating waterfowl constructed. 

There were upgrades and repairs to facilities astride the lake as well. New water pipelines and drainage systems were installed in communities on the east side of Crescent Lake, to divert sewage lines from emptying into the lake. Walkways were resurfaced to absorb water, instead of allowing it to spill into the lake.

Interestingly enough, two popular restaurants adjacent to Crescent Lake, as well as a small amusement park, will continue to operate. Local rumors have always tied at least the restaurants to specific government departments, and so political connections might have trumped pollution control measures in this instance.

How this project was conceived, managed, and presented is worth a study in itself. Nanjing authorities provided a central phone number to call in with complaints and suggestions about the Crescent Lake cleanup specifically, something apart from the ongoing initiative in the city to field the concerns of residents. Schedules and plans for the project were posted and openly shared on-site, and the mobile phone numbers of the managers and supervisors were displayed for citizens to call directly if they had questions. This was a well-conceived, well-organized experiment in policy that actually reached out to the public—something rare in China, though not so uncommon these days in Nanjing and other parts of Jiangsu.

There are all sorts of instances in China where local authorities have been lousy and irresponsible, corrupt and draconian, selfish and stupid. This wasn’t one of them. Sometimes good governance at the local level can be found by just looking around.


  1. Nice to see this happening. I lived in Nanjing for three years. One of the nice things about Nanjing were the canals. They weren't anything special, but I was happy that they still existed. In Tokyo, evidently, they had used the canals to construct roads or the metro -- I can't remember which. It would be wonderful if more of the canals, starting around Fuzimiao, became more usable.

  2. Thanks very much for your comment. Fuzimiao [夫子庙] has been using the canals for tours, and it seems to be successful without sullying the waters or the general environment. It will be interesting to see if some of that effort to employ some of the waterways will be replicated. Local news in Nanjing has said that might happen, but has not followed up in, recent months at least.