March 8, 2018 / 9:22 AM / 10 months ago

China's Hebei province vows to chase 'high-quality' growth

* New strategic industries on agenda for China’s top steel region

* Hebei to promote AI, robotics as old industries are shut

* Handan city still struggling, requiring special measures

By David Stanway and Muyu Xu

BEIJING, March 8 (Reuters) - The Chinese province of Hebei will pursue “high-quality development” this year as it looks to find alternative sources of economic growth while cracking down on polluters, local leaders said at a parliamentary meeting on Thursday.

Hebei, home to nearly a quarter of China’s steel capacity and the location of six of the country’s 10 smoggiest cities, has been shutting down industrial plants and curbing coal use to reduce air pollution, much of which drifts into neighbouring Beijing.

But apart from cracking down on polluters, Hebei has also vowed to promote strategic industries in areas like artificial intelligence, robotics, big data and new energy vehicles.

During an open meeting of the Hebei delegation to the National People’s Congress held in front of journalists on Thursday and attended by Environment Minister Li Ganjie, provincial officials reinforced the message that Hebei was capable of shifting to cleaner growth.

“We must promote technological innovation, allow new industries to become the mainstay of Hebei’s economy and turn Hebei into a major province for ‘high-quality development’,” Governor Xu Qin said, citing a slogan used by Premier Li Keqiang in his opening address to parliament this week.

Hebei met its air quality targets last year, cutting average concentrations of particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5), small, breathable pollutants that can lodge deep in the lungs, by 7.1 percent to 65 micrograms per cubic metre.

Hebei met those targets by aggressively shutting plants, especially in the steel sector.

Hebei’s cities are now competing against one another to cut pollution after the province launched a new “punishment and reward” system that will fine the worst performers.

The provincial capital of Shijiazhuang cut PM2.5 concentrations by 13 percent last year and Mayor Deng Peiran said he was increasingly confident in the city’s ability to tackle smog.

Tangshan, China’s biggest steelmaking city, is making rapid progress diversifying its economy and shutting down polluting plants, the city’s top Communist Party official Ding Xingfeng said. The city cut PM2.5 concentrations by 10.8 percent last year.

Tangshan plans to invest more than 100 billion yuan ($15.80 billion) this year on projects to “upgrade” its economy.

However, Wang Litong, mayor of Handan, a heavily polluted steel hub and the only city in Hebei to see PM2.5 rise in 2017, was not called upon to speak at the meeting.

Foreign media were not allowed to ask questions at the event, or given access to question officials. State-owned media agencies were allowed to ask questions and officials read their answers from prepared statements.

$1 = 6.3290 yuan Reporting by David Stanway and Muyu Xu; Editing by Christian Schmollinger

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