BEIJING (AP) -- China's severe environmental problems and government pledges to fix them have dominated the start of the country's closely watched annual legislative meeting this week, as leaders try to ease public worries about air, water and soil contamination that threatens to derail China's economic rise.
Two days into the session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to "punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy the ecology or environment, with no exceptions," according to the official Xinhua News Agency. At the meeting's opening event a day earlier, Premier Li Keqiang swore the government would cut back on major pollutants and improve energy efficiency.
The environmental focus, which comes amid a flurry of announcements about crackdowns on coal use and carbon emissions, reflects worries that public anger over hazardous pollution could threaten the grip of the ruling Communist Party. In another show of concern, Chinese censors began blocking on Friday a phenomenally popular documentary, "Under the Dome," that was released a week ago and lays out the health and societal costs of the country's environmental crisis.
"They've made a big deal about air pollution in the last couple of (legislative meetings)," said Alvin Lin, the Beijing-based China climate and energy policy director of the U.S.-based environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council. "'Under the Dome' made it so they really really have to talk about it."
Chinese officials at the meeting said they would cut coal consumption by 160 million tons over the next five years, while the vice mayor of Beijing said the capital city would shut down 300 factories and take 200,000 heavily polluting vehicles off the roads this year. In November, Xi pledged to stop the growth in Chinese carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and, by that same year, double the share of its energy matrix generated by non-fossil fuels.
Still, the skies above Beijing remained choked by thick smog this weekend, and China continues to emit more greenhouse gases than any other country -- twice the emissions of the United States, which is the world's second biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.
"They are really serious about this except the problem is really entrenched," said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. "It is intertwined with all aspects of industry and agriculture and so forth, and it's a really difficult problem to tackle."
The depth of public passion about China's ailing environment became crystal clear this week with the release of the 104-minute documentary by Chai Jing, a former state television network reporter. More than 175 million people viewed the film online in just a few days, unleashing rare public debate about the state of the country's environment.
China's new environment minister, Chen Jining, at first praised the film, saying it reflected "growing public concern over environmental protection and threats to human health."
Yet the buzz around the documentary ultimately made officials nervous, prompting them to play defense at the National People's Congress meeting and take down the film, Lam said.
"Although this is a perennial issue, there's heightened concern because this affects everybody, even (legislative) members who come from a privileged background," he said.
Whether the concern lasts beyond the congress meeting depends on whether the government and everyday Chinese make use of new tools to punish polluters and hold governments responsible, including a new nationwide environmental law that went into effect this year, Lin said.
"I don't think it's lip service," Lin said. "I think they'll continue to push on this."