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2017-11-02 12:33:57

The southern Chinese province of Guangdong has given its coastal communities more freedom to explore marine development projects, according to an official guideline released Tuesday.

The provincial government hopes the move will lead to improved efficiency and a more robust economy. Specifically, the new standards mean companies will no longer need to obtain official approval before conducting environmental impact assessment reports — a key first step to any large-scale development project in China.

This decentralization-oriented reform comes in response to a call from the central government to invigorate local markets. The guideline also encourages lower-level governments to set industry-specific land use fees and establishes a rule whereby localities should preserve at least 35 percent of their natural coastline, ensuring some degree of balance between nature and development.

“The new guideline simplifies the approval process, easing the burden on entrepreneurs, and this can have a positive impact on economic development,” Xu Wei, a researcher at the National Ocean Technology Center in the northern port city of Tianjin, told Sixth Tone.

The new standard comes five months after Guangdong published its five-year goals for marine economic development, which it will pursue through 2020. According to the provincial statistics bureau, Guangdong has jurisdiction over some 420,000 square kilometers of sea — an area roughly the size of Sweden. The province also boasts the most coastline of any region in China at over 4,000 kilometers. It has 1,400 islands of varying sizes, accommodating nearly the same number of total inhabitants.

Last year, the ocean contributed 1.57 trillion yuan ($238 billion) to Guangdong’s provincial GDP, or one-fifth of its total. For the country as a whole, that figure — which in China is termed “gross oceanic product” — accounts for just 9.5 percent of overall GDP. By 2020, Guangdong’s government hopes to bring its gross oceanic product to 2.2 trillion. For the last 22 years, no province has surpassed Guangdong in terms of this metric.

However, excessive development and the exploitation of finite oceanic resources could spell trouble in the years ahead if projects are not managed properly.

According to Xu, parts of the province’s coast are already overexploited, and some smaller islands riddled with “a thousand gaping wounds” from sand mining operations are at risk of disappearing altogether. In fact, the province has lost 76 islands to illegal mining and other industrial activity at sea. Reports further indicate that extensive land reclamation projects along the region’s Pearl River Delta have had a narrowing effect, endangering wildlife and fragile aquatic ecosystems.

Regardless of when any new regulations take effect, Xu argues, these problems are likely to persist because of the difficulty of ensuring supervision along the coastline and out at sea.

Xu sees great potential for industries such as coastal tourism, high-tech fish farming, and offshore wind power, though he acknowledges that rigid oversight will be needed to minimize environmental impact. “Once provincial officials have delegated power to lower levels of government,” he said, “supervision at the middle and later stages must be more focused.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Aerial view of a fishing village in Huizhou, Guangdong province, Nov. 16, 2014. Luo Tuo/VCG)