Thursday, Aug 17, 2017, 9:57 AM CST – China


Water Pollution

All Bark, No Bite

Have China’s environmental protection departments really been given “teeth?”

Residents of Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, line up for clean drinking water provided by the local government after water resources in the area were reported to contain excessive levels of benzene, April 12, 2014 Photo by CFP

A drinking water reservoir serving over 50,000 people in Wushan County, Chongqing, has been polluted with industrial runoff, August, 2014 Photo by Xinhua

The local government of Hezhou, Guangxi, demolishes illegal mining plants located beside local rivers Photo by CNS

Three months ago, a video of a TED Talk-style lecture about China’s air pollution delivered by renowned Chinese journalist Chai Jing went viral on the Chinese Internet, not least for a segment in which Ding Yan, an official with the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) called his own department “toothless.”

Since its establishment in 2008, the MEP and its local branches have faced constant criticism for what the public perceives as feeble efforts to combat pollution, with environmental officials often accused of turning a blind eye, or even colluding with polluters.

With China’s pollution problem becoming increasingly intolerable for the public, the Chinese government has formulated a series of new laws and regulations over the past few years, aiming to “arm environmental protection departments with ‘sharp teeth.’”

In June 2013, China’s State Council issued its Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control, pledging to curb emissions by shutting down heavy-polluting factories and forcing industrial adjustment. Ten months later, the government approved a new revision to the Environmental Protection Law, grabbing headlines nationwide by introducing harsher punishments for polluters, including unlimited per-day fines, and criminal charges for serious violators. Tough measures continued with the release of the latest Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention and Control issued in April, 2015, which not only mandates the closure of factories unable to install pollution control equipment, but also sets specific pollution control indices and tasks for each of the relevant departments.

According to incomplete statistics from the MEP, within the first two months following the promulgation of the new Environmental Protection Law, the ministry had imposed per-day fines on at least 15 polluters, took control of around 136 factories, closed another 122, and handed over 107 criminal suspects to the police.

“Many polluting enterprises had previously ignored environmental protection laws and regulations, since the small fines had a negligible impact on their operations and production, while ‘daily-basis’ fines are a much more effective method of prevention,” Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead negotiator for the UN Climate Change Conferences, told the China Youth Daily during the 2015 sessions of the Chinese government’s political advisory and legislative conferences, also known as the “Two Sessions.”

“The next key task is to ensure the implementation of the laws and regulations,” he added.

Many experts agree with this sentiment, particularly given President Xi Jinping’s recent proclamation that “the dignity of the law lies in implementation.” Given China’s evident previous failure to control pollution, many experts and critics are questioning whether environmental protection departments are even capable of using their new “teeth.”


Such worries came to the fore recently as the Tengger Desert, China’s fourth largest desert that stretches between Inner Mongolia and Gansu Province, was exposed to have been polluted by local industrial and trade company Ronghua.

According to media reports, Ronghua allegedly discharged over 80,000 tons of waste water into the desert from secret pipes that had been laid illegally, leading the public to question why the company had dared to pollute the desert despite the government’s tightened control.

“Local residents reported [Ronghua’s] pollution to the provincial environmental protection bureau as early as September 2014, when Gansu Province was conducting an anti-pollution campaign. However, the bureau simply transferred the case to a lower-level bureau, which turned a blind eye to the report,” ran a report by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Many analysts have pointed out that the new powers bestowed upon the environmental protection departments are not effective enough, partly due to a lack of pollution control experience and expertise, and partly due to the polluters and officials’ weak general awareness of environmental protection.

“With their current capabilities, the environmental protection departments seem unable to meet the urgent need for strict pollution controls, and to carry out duties and functions with which the new laws and regulations have endowed them,” Qi Xuekun, policy and regulation director with the environmental protection bureau in Jinan, Shandong Province, told local media.

Qi Xuekun’s words were echoed by Li Chunyuan, environmental protection director of Langfang, Hebei Province, who shot to fame with his book The Smog Comes, which tells fictional – although uncannily realistic – stories centering on a county-level environmental protection official.

In the book, Li highlighted the dilemma faced by Chinese environmental protection departments, as the protagonist is repeatedly obstructed by the county mayor in his efforts to control pollution. Although the book was defined as a novel, Li told NewsChina that most of the stories are based on what he had experienced and heard.

“Environmental protection has become a hot potato that few officials are willing to touch,” Li said. “If an environmental protection director wants to fight against pollution, he might be under pressure from higher-level officials, while if he wants to keep his position, he may have to yield to the inevitability of pollution,” he added.

According to media reports, pollution has remained the norm in the Tengger Desert since 1999 when the local government established an industrial zone to attract investment. Before the exposure of the Ronghua pollution scandal, many other factories in the area were revealed to have left raw sewage to evaporate in the open air and buried the residue under the desert sand, an accusation that local officials had denied until President Xi Jinping ordered a nationwide investigation into pollution.

In order to push local governments to care more about pollution control, the latest anti-pollution laws and regulations have made “green GDP” a performance assessment criterion for officials, with many lower-level officials complaining that the situation on the ground is far more complex than their superiors may believe. For example, given the relative poverty of many of China’s western regions, local governments are often reluctant to shut down the polluting companies, particularly big taxpayers. Xiong Yuehui, an MEP official, told Chai Jing, the journalist whose pollution lecture went viral, that Hebei Province, a Chinese steel base where unlicensed steel plants employed hundreds of thousands of locals, was a particularly tough nut to crack.

Given China’s prioritization of rapid GDP growth over the past decade, the MEP and its local branches have been marginalized and their ambitions made subordinate to those of the ministries of finance, education and commerce, among others, making it difficult for environmental protection departments to receive support and cooperation from the other departments.

In January 2015, the same month the new Environmental Protection Law took effect, a group of environmental protection officials in Xiangtan, Hunan Province, were reported to have been physically assaulted by officers from a local urban management bureau that refused to issue a fine to a garbage dump under its jurisdiction. More recently, a village-level Party secretary in Dongming County, Shandong Province, was revealed to have led a group of people in an assault on six local environmental protection officials who were investigating the illegal discharge of sewage into local drinking water.

When formulating environmental policy, such as setting gasoline quality standards, for example, the MEP is often shut out of the planning committee, with relevant industrial commissions instead taking a leading role. Worse still, many regulations or articles relating to environmental pollution fail to clarify which department should have authority over pollution control, leading the relevant departments to shift responsibilities onto each other when pollution is discovered. As a result, environmental protection departments often shoulder the majority of the blame.

Perhaps for this reason, the latest Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention and Control clarifies the responsibilities and tasks of relevant departments to ensure the environmental protection department has sufficient support in its efforts to fight pollution. At the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), General Secretary Xi Jinping proposed that one department be placed in charge of overseeing the protection and recovery of all State land, including mountainous areas, water, forestry and farmland. State media have reported that the MEP has established a reform team, which will be responsible for working out an overall anti-pollution plan.

“We have to turn ‘iron-fisted’ measures into the status quo. Laws and regulations are not mere scraps of paper,” Chen Jining, China’s minister of environmental protection, pledged in a recent press conference.

Public Supervision

While the public reacted positively to the granting of increased power to the MEP and its branches, many have expressed concern that these departments may misuse their new “teeth,” alleging that corruption might be the primary reason behind the local government’s inaction regarding the pollution of the Tengger Desert.

Actually, numerous media reports have revealed how environmental protection officials or government-backed environmental assessment organs have colluded with polluters – a major reason why more and more local residents tend to protest any chemical project located beside their homes no matter whether its owners hold a government permit or not. In March 2015, Liu Xiangdong, former director of the environmental protection bureau of Shanxi Province who complained about his department’s lack of power in Chai Jing’s lecture video, was detained for alleged corruption.

Public supervision, an aspect of pollution control that has traditionally been actively discouraged, has now been made a higher priority. “Why are we unable to solve so many pollution problems without the decree of top leaders, while public and media supervision remain an empty shell?” questioned commentator Hu Xianda on popular online message board Tianya.

The central government has already acknowledged the problem and made some initial improvements to laws and regulations. The new Environmental Protection Law, for example, emphasizes transparency in the publication of environmental protection information and allows environmental NGOs legal recourse to deal with pollution. The MEP has set up a pollution reporting platform within popular instant messaging and social media smartphone app WeChat. However, in terms of making provisions for public and media supervision of pollution, the recent laws and regulations are relatively less detailed and feasible.

“[The Environmental Protection Law] is just the first step of the long-term anti-pollution journey, and we have a lot of problems to solve in the future, especially about the public’s and NGOs’ involvement in pollution control,” Chang Jiwen, vice-director general of the Research Institute for Resources and Environment Policies under the State Council, told the China Youth Daily. “It is natural that the new law will place pressure on both enterprises and officials, since both sides need time to adapt to the new situation,” he added.


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