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UPDATED: September 5, 2014 NO. 36 SEPTEMBER 4, 2014
Letting Go of GDP
Diversified evaluators have been introduced to assess local officials' performance amid growing ecological concerns
By Wang Jun

BEFORE AND AFTER: Above, industrial sewage without any treatment is discharged into the Fenhe River in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, in 2006. After years of treatment, a green ecological corridor was built in the section in 2014 (GAO JIARONG AND YAN YAN)

East China's Fujian Province is preparing for the adoption of a more reasonable set of standards to evaluate local government performance, which may give officials in localities with lower economic growth cause to feel a bit more relaxed.

In August, the Fujian Provincial Government announced that it will gauge the overall performance of 34 counties or cities by their development of agriculture and ecological protection rather than growth of gross domestic product (GDP).

Until now, more than 70 county-level regions in the provinces and autonomous regions of Shanxi, Ningxia, Hebei, Zhejiang, Shaanxi, Guizhou and Fujian have abandoned evaluation of local government performance by GDP growth alone.

The said counties and cities fall into three categories: economically under-developed regions, such as the 36 counties in Shanxi in the north; regions of significance in ecological protection or agriculture, such as the 34 counties and cities in Fujian; and ecologically vulnerable areas that must necessarily restrict their development, such as counties and cities in Guizhou in the southwest.

However, a nationwide shift may prove to be difficult, as GDP growth is still a major tool to assess the development level of most of the country's 2,000 counties and cities.

"We all know that GDP should not be the be-all and end-all of our work, but it is really hard to implement this in practice," an anonymous county government official told Beijing-based International Financial News. "We have become accustomed to competing with neighboring counties in terms of GDP growth. But now the rules of the competition have changed, and we also need some time to adjust."

He lamented that in some underdeveloped regions in west China, local governments are particularly eager for higher GDP growth. "We are facing great challenges because we must both develop and transform the economy. Without transformation, economic development will not be sustainable, but where is our road to fulfill the mission?" he said.

Impetus and pressure

China began official calculation of GDP in 1985. Since then, the aggregate measure of total economic production has borne witness to China's economic takeoff.

"Changing the focus of evaluation criteria from GDP growth to ecological protection is both an impetus to, and pressure upon, environmental departments," Liu Shengpeng, head of the Environmental Protection Bureau of Anxi County in Fujian, told The Economic Observer, a Beijing-based business weekly.

In 2012, Fujian formulated a development plan dividing its 84 cities and counties into four categories with different functions of optimized development, key development, agricultural production and ecological conservation.

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