Chinese citizens are increasingly taking to the streets to protest existing or potential environmental threats—such as toxic water, smoggy air, excessive noise, and dam building. China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) reported that 51,000 environmental disputes—some peaceful and some violent—occurred in 2005. The numbers of such disputes are most likely growing in number and size, strikingly illustrated by the nearly 20,000 urbanites who protested on June 1, 2007 in Xiamen (Fujian) against a planned chemical factory in the city's suburbs. This protest has been called China's largest middle-class demonstration in recent years, notably organized by text messages and Internet chatrooms in Xiamen.
With the growth in both environmental problems and protests, it is not surprising that the poorly staffed and funded SEPA has turned increasingly to citizens and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help protect the environment and act as industry watchdogs. Over the past year SEPA with high-level government support has passed a number of new environmental laws and regulations that are opening up more space for public participation and transparent rule-making. At this June 20, 2007 meeting, the China Environment Forum hosted a delegation brought to the United States by the Asia Law Initiative of the American Bar Association. Two delegation members, Wu Dengming president of the NGO the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing and Peng Bin from the Guizhou Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB), presented some of the work they are doing to engage and empower people in environmental decision-making at the local level in China. Other delegation members made comments during the Q & A.
Wu Dengming introduced the Sichuan-based Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, as an organization of "few words and much action." His group aims to use grassroots projects and activism to influence policy change and solve environmental problems. One of the projects that he highlighted as most successful was the League's efforts on protecting forests in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Much of the success of this project can be attributed to the NGO's willingness to recognize and address the concerns of the local people.
After the catastrophic 1998 flood on the Yangtze River, the central government banned logging on the upper reaches of the river to prevent further soil erosion and flooding. Due to the local economy's heavy reliance on logging, the central government instituted a subsidy program called "Grain for Green," in which farmers were given a little money and a grain subsidy in return for allowing trees to grow on their land. Loggers were given 8,000 Yuan as compensation for losing their livelihood. The Green Volunteer League recognized that these subsidies alone would not sustain the very poor communities in this area and ultimately would force residents to turn to illegal logging. Thus, Wu's NGO began an outreach program to stimulate sustainable development of the local economy. Wu described the work as teaching the villagers to use the forest as a bank where cutting down the trees would reduce their principle. The League helped local villages develop eco-tourism and forest agriculture (e.g., herbs, mushrooms, and honey) and today, nine years since beginning the project, the villagers now make considerably more money than they had logging.
Engage Local Culture and Customs
Peng Bin presented some of the ways that the Guizhou EPB is engaging the local population to help solve environmental challenges. Guizhou is one of China's poorest provinces and 40 percent of its population is made up of ethnic minorities. Mining and heavy industry are the major source of economic development in this highly mountainous province. Besides rural pollution from coal mining and township village enterprises, urban air and water pollution are contaminating Guizhou's rural areas. In light of these problems it is not surprising that cases of environmental pollution litigation have been rapidly rising in Guizhou.
In order to preserve the province's rich environmental heritage, the Guizhou EPB prioritized strengthening environmental education to the ethnic minority groups, who are often the most affected by pollution and resource degradation. One particularly innovative project involved the Dong people, a group of about 2.5 million living on the province's border areas. Because the Dong possess no written language, but preserve knowledge though stories and song, in 2004 the EPB crafted an environmental education program that created songs and plays with environmental messages in the Dong language to present at local festivals.
A second outreach program served as a follow-up to a project that converted household energy use from coal to methane. The EPB gave many villagers cameras to photograph how the conversion had improved their lives, and then publicly displayed the best photographs.
Another important way that the Chinese government is trying to engage local populations is through the Internet, as both a tool for information dissemination and a channel for comments and complaints. Information dissemination in the environmental sphere remains a serious challenge in China. For example, CEF's May speaker Tad Ferris (Holland and Knight) estimated that it takes 18 months for new environmental laws at the central level to filter down to local governments, and even longer to reach the people that they target. To address this major time lag, both the central and local governments are now turning to the Internet to disseminate information on new environmental laws and regulations.
In terms of the use of the Internet as an outlet for citizen complaints, Sun Xiaomei discussed how Liaoning Province's EPB began an Internet project called the Mingxian Wang several years ago to address citizen's environmental concerns. With the Mingxian Wang system, citizens can post comments or complaints on the EPB's website. Her office then uses the EPB's intranet to track the internal bureau discussion and response to each complaint. Wang Song noted that this Internet site is one of many important initiatives that the city of Shenyang has employed as part of implementing China's first municipal-level regulations on environmental public participation.
Another avenue for comments and complaints that Sun Zhenshi highlighted is SEPA's highly successful 12369 Environmental Hotline, which today covers 80 percent of the country. This hotline empowers citizens not only to serve as industry watchdogs, but also has enabled pollution victims to learn about their rights to seek compensation through the legal system.
New Laws Enhancing Public Participation
China's new laws and decrees that mandate transparent environmental impact assessments and more extensive disclosure of environmental information are empowering citizens and NGOs to better check polluting industries and corrupt local officials. One of the most powerful new legislative tools is the recent environmental impact assessment (EIA) public participation regulation that requires public hearings and publication of all EIAs. Xia Jun noted that after SEPA and EPBs began posting EIAs that had already been approved, public pressure led many of them to be recalled and then posted for public comment before being re-approved. The new EIA laws and the growing number of class action suits against polluters have pushed both the central and some local governments to close some polluting enterprises.
Beijing is committed to improving environmental quality in China to protect the ecological, human, and economic health of the country. However, the central government often lacks the capacity to implement its progressive environmental policies. Thus, local governments, lawyers, and NGOs, such as those represented in this ABA-ASIA delegation, are playing a vital role in information dissemination and engaging the public in environmental decision-making. Ultimately, improving China's formal channels for public participation will lessen the growing tide of protests.
Exchange Project to Increase Citizen Participation, Accountability and Transparency in Environmental Decision-Making in China
In 2002, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and the Asia Law Initiative of the American Bar Association (ABA-Asia) began to work cooperatively to implement an environmental governance training program in various cities in China. The objective of the program is to train local environmental authorities and public representatives in concepts of environmental law and governance, including Western and Chinese frameworks for environmental protection, public participation, information transparency and open government. Following these trainings, ABA-Asia worked with Chinese partners to implement a series of pilot programs that highlight various tools for enforcing Chinese environmental law.
As a continuation of its environmental governance project and collaboration with SEPA, from June 23 to July 22, 2007 ABA brought 10 Chinese officials from SEPA, provincial and city environmental protection bureaus, and other sectors to observe public participation at environmental protection agencies in the U.S. federal and state governments, as well as environmental NGOs. This exchange project is designed to show the Chinese officials public participation as it is implemented in U.S. environmental programs: outreach and public education on environmental impact, public hearings on environmental licensing decisions, and "notice and comment" opportunities for public written comment on proposed environmental regulations. While the Chinese participants in the program have already heard descriptions of these programs, the on-site experience will enable them to observe the day-to-day implementation, attitudes, challenges, and tools with their own eyes. Two Chinese exchange participants will be placed in each host institution: EPA Region 9 in San Francisco; Sierra Club in San Francisco, California EPA in Sacramento and Oakland, EPA Region 5 in Chicago, and Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC and NYC.
Delegation Hosted by the Asia Law Initiative of the American Bar Association.
Drafted by Linden Ellis.
- SEPA Environmental Monitoring Bureau
- SEPA Environmental Monitoring Center, East China
- Shenyang EPB, Policy and Regulation Division
- Shenyang EPB, Personnel Supervision Division
- Guizhou Provincial EPB, Center for Education and Communications
- Wuhan EPB, Pollution Control Division
- Xi'an EPB, Regulation, Education and Communications Division
- The Green Volunteer League of Chongqing
- Beijing Zhongzi Law Firm, Environment Resource Department
- Judge, Supreme People's Court, First Court of Civil Trial