BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Police in the northern Chinese city of Linfen have arrested three people for spreading “untrue information” about local efforts to cut smog, highlighting growing sensitivity about the social and economic disruptions brought about by the country’s four-year “war on pollution”.
Linfen, located in China’s coal-producing heartland of Shanxi province, has already been rebuked by the central government for its involvement in an emissions fraud scandal, with local officials accused of tampering with state air monitoring stations on nearly 100 occasions in the space of a year.
In a notice posted on its Wechat account, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said two people in Linfen had been arrested and detained for spreading false information deemed to have a negative impact on society. Another suspect was given an unspecified “administrative punishment”.
The men disseminated photos and information claiming that overzealous environmental inspectors in Linfen had sealed off the stoves of their homes as part of a crackdown, the notice said, “causing serious social impact”.
Liu Youbin, an environment ministry spokesman, said that he welcomed the detentions, saying many people were spreading “fake news” about China’s tough inspection regime.
“People complain the inspections have got more stringent, which could be a good thing because that means local authorities are strictly fulfilling their duties and the results are showing,” he said.
The ministry has been trying to allay concerns that its four-year “war on pollution” has being waged unfairly and failed to take regional economic conditions into consideration, especially during a six-month long restriction on industrial output that ended in March.
The central government has promised to end a “one-size fits all” approach to implementing environmental controls after some industries complained they were being forced to cut output whether they had met state emissions requirements or not.
But concerns remain that the campaign is having a disproportionate impact on small and private businesses, especially after it began to focus on so-called “scattered” pollution sources like backyard workshops, small coal-fired rural boilers and open-air barbecue restaurants.
Inspectors “rectified” as many as 62,000 scattered pollution sources in 2018, demolishing paper mills, ceramic factories and food stalls throughout northern China.
Reporting by Muyu Xu in BEIJING and David Stanway in SHANGHAI; Editing by Christian Schmollinger