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Environment, Public Welfare Priorities for Qinghai

Ever wondered what it takes to run one of the country's largest, most barren and poorest provinces?

The answer is pragmatism, according to Qinghai Governor Song Xiuyan, who does just that.

Speaking at a press conference during the ongoing NPC session, China's only woman governor was frank about the province's position on the country's economic map: "Qinghai is Qinghai and Shanghai is Shanghai. It doesn't make any sense to compare."

And she is clear about the cash-strapped province's priorities: Public welfare and ecology.

"That Qinghai's economy lags behind doesn't mean our efforts at improving public welfare can be slackened. Our people deserve to enjoy the fruit of the country's development, just as much as their fellow citizens in the rest of the nation," Song said.

Last year, Qinghai spent 20 billion yuan (US$2.8 billion) - more than 70 percent of its annual fiscal revenue - on education, healthcare and poverty relief.

Making basic public services available to people in remote, sparsely populated Qinghai is more costly than in most other parts of the country, Song said.

For example, dorms have to be built for school students whose homes are hundreds of kilometers away, and hospitals have to equip themselves with thousands of ambulances to serve the herdsmen scattered across the vast plateau.

Nevertheless, by the end of last year, the Qinghai government had fulfilled all promises it had made to improve welfare for the local people, including introducing a subsistence allowance system for rural people and tuition subsidies for children from poor families.

In contrast to the generous spending on public welfare, Song works from an office in a shabby 1950s building in Xining, the provincial capital.

Asked to comment on the luxury government buildings to be found in coastal areas, she said: "An official's capability is not measured by his or her offices or cars."

Having worked in Qinghai for more than 35 years, Song has a vision for its future.

Despite the province's need for an economic boost, she has made it clear that protection of the ecology is a top priority for the province, where the Yangtze, Lancang/Mekong and Yellow rivers all have their sources.

"The protection of Qinghai's ecology is vital to the sustainable growth of China and even Asia. We have to take care of the nation's overall interests even at the cost of local interests."

In 2005, Qinghai authorities launched a 7.5-billion-yuan project to protect the 318,000-sq-km area covering the headwater of the three rivers. A year later, they banned mine exploration in the region, and stopped putting targets on industrialization and assessing local officials' performance based on GDP figures.

The effort has paid off. Some once vanished wetlands have reappeared, while previously dried-up lakes are again full of water.

In Song's vision, Qinghai's industrial growth will be stem from the Qaidam Basin, a 240,000-sq-km area dubbed "China's treasury bowl" for its rich mine resources.

The province will foster a "circular economy" in the area and minimize disruption to the environment, she said.

But there are no plans to risk losing what the province already has in the pursuit of economic growth, she said.

"The ideal future for Qinghai should be nice mountains, nice water and nice people."

(China Daily March 15, 2008)

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