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China's government wants to clean things up. Since Xi Jinping took office five years ago, it has become clear to him that pollution has become potentially destabilizing in China. This year, in an unprecedented campaign, environmental inspectors have fanned out across the country, closing tens of thousands of factories in an attempt to cut down on pollution. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: In the gritty industrial town of Yiwu, workers prepared jeans to be died in a vivid range of colors. Two months ago, this factory and this city was a much quieter place. Inspection crews from the environmental bureau had shut factories down, cutting electricity and gas so that they could determine who was following China's environmental laws and who wasn't. The boss of his factory, who didn't give his name for fear of punishment by local officials, said he never seen anything like it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) It had a big impact on our business. We couldn't make the delivery day since we're shut down. It's not just our factory. All the factories out here had this issue.
SCHMITZ: In fact, this is happening all over the country. Entire industrial regions of China shut down, smog gone and the unusual sight of blue skies reappearing as inspections are under way. After decades of doing little about the pollution that plagued much of the country, China's government is getting serious about enforcing its environmental laws.
GARY HUANG: So, basically, you're seeing these inspectors just go into factories - surprise inspections.
SCHMITZ: Gary Huang is founder of 80/20 Sourcing. He connects foreign clients with China's supply chain.
HUANG: They're instituting daily fines. And, sometimes, the real severe cases could be, you know, criminal, you know, enforcement. People are getting put in jail.
SCHMITZ: China's Ministry of Environment told NPR it was too busy to be interviewed. That's because the ministry has sent inspectors to nearly every province in China this year. They've reprimanded, fined or criminally charged more than 80,000 factories.
MICHAEL CROTTY: It's a huge event. It's a serious event by the government. I think many of us here believe that it will become the new normal.
SCHMITZ: Michael Crotty, president of MKT & Associates, an import-export company, says in his nearly two decades in China, he's never seen a crackdown of this magnitude. He thinks it's here to stay.
CROTTY: The consumers in China don't want red and blue rivers. They don't want to see gray skies every day.
SCHMITZ: And the government, says Crotty, is finally listening.
PETER CORNE: This is better than a hundred-percent pay rise for me. It's just - I was dreaming about it. I never thought it would come true. This is like the new normal.
SCHMITZ: After a quarter century of living in China, Shanghai environmental lawyer Peter Corne is gleefully celebrating. He says what's most promising about this new enforcement are the new fees that are being imposed when factories, whose emissions are now monitored in real time, discharge more than the law allows.
CORNE: The implementation will be totally different. It won't be the environmental bureau that's implementing anymore. They'll just be monitoring. It'll be the tax bureau that's implementing.
SCHMITZ: This is crucial, says Corne, because China's tax bureaus are powerful entities backed up by rigorous laws that, when violated, are typically met with aggressive local enforcement. Corne's confident the economic hit will be balanced by a boom in China's clean tech industry that'll need to help factories comply with much stricter laws. But for now, that's little consolation for businessmen like Michael Crotty, who runs a home textile company in Shanghai.
CROTTY: So short term, the disruptions are pretty significant. And the timing, quite frankly, is difficult.
SCHMITZ: Difficult because these shutdowns have impacted supply chains producing goods for the upcoming Christmas season in the United States. Crotty thinks Americans will see an increase in prices on the shelves this holiday season. But, he says, it's a small price to pay for a cleaner China. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai.
(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "CLEAN ON CHROME")
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