China's Environmental Governance
China faces an ecological crisis, but its environmental authorities are too weak to cope, says Xiangcong Ma. Greater enforcement, improved departmental coordination and public supervision are needed.
"The most prominent issue in the enforcement of environmental law is the government itself breaking the law."
Pan Yue, deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Adminstration (SEPA), refers to ecological civilisation as a type of society that humans are now moving towards, having developed through the primitive, agricultural and industrial stages of civilisation.
The global environment is now in crisis, but we are only in the initial stages of such a transformation. There is still a long way to go, both in China and in developed countries such as the US. First we need to change the way we think, then put these changes into action – and alter the direction of society’s development.
The Communist Party of China has proposed a scientific, people-centered and sustainable model of growth for the new century. The realisation of a socialist ecological civilisation requires a scientific concept of development, which will mean governance according to rule of law. China has already established basic environmental laws, but weak enforcement has resulted in a worsening environment.
Issues covered in this article:
1. Weak authorities
2. Enforcing the law
3. Environmental oversight
Issues of weak enforcement, a lack of information given to the public, poor knowledge of the health implications of pollution by the general public, weak regulations. All of these issues are covered in this good article.
Environmental Protection in China: the Role of Law
China’s growing rule of law and public environmental awareness show promising initial signs of success. But will it be too little, too late? Alex Wang investigates.
"For China, the challenges of using the law for environmental protection are formidable. Unlike the US with its long history and culture of using law and the courts, China essentially began in 1979 to rebuild anew a legal system that had been entirely dismantled in the previous few decades."
In a rural village, set on the edges of a narrow mountain valley, a group of farmers go to court seeking relief from industrial pollution that has threatened their health and destroyed the crops that are the basis of their livelihoods. The defendants are two local factories that use a primitive industrial process to reduce copper ore. The process generates massive amounts of smoke and stench that decimate much of the surrounding forests and crops and cause local residents chronic headaches and coughing. The farmers ask for compensation and a court order halting the pollution. The court refuses to order a stop to the polluting activities because such an order would “blot out two great mining and manufacturing enterprises, destroy half of the taxable values of a county … and deprive thousands of working people of their homes and livelihood.”
This is a story that is all too familiar in China, reflecting the persistent distance between environmental degradation and a legal system struggling to keep up with a rapidly changing economy. This particular story, however, does not come from China at all. Rather, it is the 1904 US case of Madison v. Ducktown Sulphur from the state of Tennessee. As in China today, the industrial revolution in the United States brought with it increasing harm to the public from pollution and greater environmental conflict. In the early part of the 20th century, the US legal system was not up to the task and the country muddled through decades of inadequate environmental regulation and often unsatisfactory court decisions. It was not until the 1970s that the US passed a series of robust environmental laws and opened the door to a generation of environmental advocates who would use law and the courts to improve the environment.
The article goes on to compare the development of environmental legislation in the US and Japan before looking again at the Chinese context.
The Chinese context
In China, more than three decades of rapid industrialization have created enormous environmental challenges. The problems are, by now, well known. Seventeen of the 25 most polluted cities in the world can be found in China. Three-hundred million people, a population larger than that of the entire United States, do not have access to safe drinking water. China’s carbon dioxide emissions may surpass US levels as early as 2009. An estimated 300,000 people die prematurely each year because of China’s air pollution beyond legal standards. The government’s own estimate puts the initial cost of environmental clean-up at a minimum of US$135 billion.
As a result, environmental disputes are on the rise. In 2005, there were some 51,000 disputes over environmental pollution, according to State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) minister Zhou Shengxian. From 2001 to 2005, Chinese environmental authorities received more than 2.53 million letters and 430,000 visits by 597,000 petitionersseeking environmental redress. Officials have expressed concern that China’s environmental problems are a leading threat to social stability.
For China, the challenges of using the law for environmental protection are formidable. Unlike the US with its long history and culture of using law and the courts, China essentially began in 1979 to rebuild anew a legal system that had been entirely dismantled in the previous few decades. China’s court system remains weak, with poorly trained judges and regular intervention in cases by local governments that often have a financial interest in polluting enterprises. Moreover, Chinese environmental laws are often lacking in effective enforcement provisions.
Hat-tip: Absurdist Republic