WHY and HOW? Some thoughts about China’s unsuccessful environmental protection

photo by  Zhang, Jingjing in Anhui province, Haozhou, Wo River, 2005

Photo by Zhang,Jingjing in Anhui province

The Chinese government is increasingly concerned about water pollution, water shortages, air pollution, desertification and other environmental issues, since these problems are going to damage the country’s “development and stability” which are two top priorities claimed by President Deng, Xiaoping. However, because “development” always remains at the top, environmental protection can only be used as an interim remedial measure when needed. In my opinion, this is the most essential reason why all efforts of environmental protection in China have always fallen into short-term effects.

For example, The People’s Republic of China Water Pollution Control Act has been in effect since June 1, 2008. This is China’s “Clean Water Act”, updated based on valuable experience of other countries including the U.S.  It includes protections such as setting national and state discharge standards, implementing emissions permit system, and establishing water quality monitoring. A lot of hope was put on this new law. However, none of these rules have been implemented effectively, because no local government is willing to take it seriously enough regardless of GDP decrease. Therefore, as long as GDP is still valued as the country’s number one target, pollution can’t be eliminated.

Furthermore, pollution can’t be treated or prevented until all the related political and legal systems are established to work together, and the environment-friendly ethics and culture are revived.

For an instance, there is still no specific authorized legal support for civil environmental litigation, with only a few general descriptions mentioned in the Environmental Protection Law, Civil Law and the Administrative Procedure Law.  This is only a small example of how difficult it is to use take a legal fight for the environment in China. Not to mention the whole legal system needs to be strengthened, gaining more independence. Otherwise, public interest lawyers will continue to suffer all kinds of non-legal challenges during the processes.

by Zhang, Jingjing in Guangdong province, Shaoguan,  in 2007. It is a picture of the outall of the tailings of Da Baoshan mining company. Several villages downriver are known as cancer villages.

Photo by Zhang, Jingjing in Guangdong province, Shaoguan

Besides “development and stability”, the other national top priority claimed by Deng is “reform”. As the whole world knows, Deng’s “1980s reform” leads China to be a fast growing country directly. However, Deng’s reform theory has not been understood comprehensively so far.  As a matter of fact, it is supposed to include “economic reform, political system reform, and other corresponding reforms” (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping volume 3, p. 237), but the government has been put overwhelming efforts on “economic reform” exclusively since 1980s. Without an overall treatment, the serious environmental pollution in China cannot be cured.

It’s always painful to admit mistakes, but it is even more challenging to correct them. As discussed above, it is critical to enforce integrated consideration and to keep balanced “reforms/development” all the time. Then the real question comes to everyone: are we ready to get rid of the addition of over-consumption of the environment?

Chu “Cassie” Chen, ELAW intern