China’s State Environmental Protection Agency, SEPA, announced a series of new guidelines Tuesday that aim to strengthen enforcement of environmental regulations, specifically, to crack down on the local corruption that has so frequently led to flaunting of China’s own regulations. The LA Times reports:
The new rules say that officials who fail to shut down projects that cause widespread pollution, reduce or cancel fees imposed on those who illegally discharge industrial waste, or cover up environmental accidents will be disciplined. The exact nature of the punishment was unclear. The government said it would range from disciplinary warnings to dismissal.
Environmentalists said the announcement was a good sign that Beijing recognizes the urgency of adopting a more sustainable development policy.
“The Chinese government knows if we continue at this pace of development, the harm to the environment can only be greater,” said Kevin May, toxics campaign manager with Greenpeace China based in the southern city of Guangzhou. “There have always been laws, but very little enforcement. Now we have new laws. How will they be different? That remains to be seen.”
To show that this time it means business, Beijing also last week announced Cabinet-level directives to clean up the country’s damaged environment in the next 15 years. At the top of the agenda is improvement of the nation’s water, air and soil quality. By the government’s own admission, most of China’s rivers are polluted and more than a third of the country is ravaged by acid rain…
… “China went from the relentless pursuit of class struggle to GDP [gross domestic product] growth; now it’s environmental protection and the so-called green GDP,” said Zhou Xiao- zheng, a sociologist at People’s University in Beijing. “Officials who want to get promoted will follow whatever the new slogan is. Why not? They don’t want to breathe bad air or drink dirty water either.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Beijing has issued nice-sounding rhetoric with no teeth behind it. But beyond the health issues and the threat to economic development caused by China’s environmental devastation, it may the the threat to social security that lends this push towards greater enforcement its urgency:
“The issue of pollution has become a ‘blasting fuse’ of social instability,” Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA, told the New China News Agency last week, referring to the rising number of public protests over the country’s environmental problems.
Another major component of these regulations is that, for the first time, they provide a mechanism for public input into the decision-making process. The always invaluable Three Gorges Probe reports:
The State Environmental Protection Administration’s highly anticipated new measures, which take effect on March 18, are explicitly aimed at ushering in an era of openness in a traditionally secretive sphere.
“This is the first official document on public involvement in the environmental sector, which will make government decisions in the sector more transparent and democratic,” Xinhua quoted SEPA deputy director Pan Yue as saying.
The official news agency reported that construction managers and environmental protection departments “will be obliged to consult public opinion” on a project’s potential environmental impacts. It quotes the guidelines as saying that this involvement of the public must be conducted in “an open, equal, extensive and convenient way.”
The concept of public participation in project decision-making has been on the books in China since the Environmental Impact Assessment Law came into force on Sept. 1, 2003.
But how the process was supposed to work in practice remained unclear, and people whose lives were turned upside down for major projects continued to have no input into the schemes or access to information about them.
“The lack of transparency in decision-making has resulted in disputes on environmental impact and even mass unrest after the completion of many construction projects,” Mr. Pan told Xinhua.
Five methods are to be used to facilitate public participation in the EIA process: opinion surveys, expert panels, forums or informal discussions, feasibility studies and hearings.
“And after a hearing has been held, the construction unit or organizing agency should append explanations that detail the reasons for accepting or rejecting the comments made by the public,” Mr. Pan told People’s Daily.
Activists in China’s burgeoning environmental sector, who have become increasingly vocal in advocating for the rights of communities affected by potentially harmful projects, welcomed SEPA’s guidelines.
Wang Yongchen, a journalist and founder of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers, said the new measures give her hope because, for the first time in China, they legitimize the public’s right to participate in environmental protection.
“The institutionalization of public participation in the EIA process is a sign of progress and a reflection of social change,” she told Shanghai’s Morning Post (Xinwen chenbao).
(For an amazing interview with Pan Yue from last year, go here.)
It’s a fascinating and frustrating paradox that at the same time the central government cracks down hard on media and public discourse, it is encouraging, in however limited a manner, public participation in the environmental review process of projects that could have a profound effect on their communities and lives.
I’ve said it before: the environmental movement has the potential to be a democratizing force in China. It has that potential because it does not present a direct political challenge to a one-Party state. But any movement that allows people to organize, to articulate their desires and present their grievances, that offers the opportunity to participate in civic life, that kind of movement changes peoples’ perceptions of what their role in society ought to be.
(For a totally different “democratic” experiment in China, check out Philip Pan’s excellent piece on the creation and development of the Chinese language Wikipedia. It will really brighten your day!)
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.