A Roundtable Discussion with SEPA Minister Xie Zhenhua | Wilson Center

A Roundtable Discussion with SEPA Minister Xie Zhenhua

To be heard among a sea of voices advocating economic development before ecological concerns, environmental activists and academics in China generally must be hardworking and possess dynamic personalities. Dynamism and commitment to protecting the environment also is increasingly evident in some officials of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA)—most notably in SEPA's minister Xie Zhenhua. Minister Xie sparked a candid and lively discussion at a December 9th meeting of the China Environment Forum. Only seconds into his remarks, Minister Xie asked if he could suspend his formal speech and simply answer audience questions, and he hoped to ask a couple of his own as well. What resulted was a frank discussion about China's environmental challenges and the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), industry, and international assistance in addressing China's growing pollution problems and ecological degradation. Minister Xie spoke extensively about the need for NGOs and the government to work together to mitigate China's environmental problems. In addition, Andrew Fahlund of the U.S. NGO American Rivers, gave the minister an example of the way in which the NGO community has been able to promote biodiversity conservation in the United States.

NGOs: Government Friend, Not Foe

The opening question broached an issue that was discussed throughout the meeting, a clear indication of its importance to both China watchers in the United States, the minister, and SEPA. Minister Xie was asked what he thought about the role NGOs will play in assuring the protection of China's environment. The minister insisted that he strongly supports the work of green NGOs in China, which commonly lead educational projects and campaigns—in areas such as garbage collection, tree planting, and battery recycling. However, the minister also admitted that NGOs in China play an atypical role. Minister Xie noted that NGOs in China act more as a bridge between the public and government in that many Chinese green groups have working relationships with local governments and environmental protection bureaus and SEPA. While environmental NGOs in other parts of the world are often far more antagonistic in pressuring the government than their Chinese counterparts, Minister Xie believes that NGOs in China are playing an important role in improving public awareness and assuring enforcement of environmental laws and monitoring enterprises that violate rules.

In the spirit of the "small government, big society" slogan begun in the late 1990s, Minister Xie stressed that NGOs also could play an important role in monitoring the government. He noted that China's environmental NGOs help his own work by offering creative ideas and suggestions for resolving difficult environmental problems. Moreover, the minister said that the more NGOs complain to the government, the easier time he has in convincing other high-ranking government officials that problems need to be resolved. In his view, NGOs should be a thorn in the side of the government to spur it into action. The minister, perhaps thinking aloud, suggested that the government could set up an incentive reward program to encourage NGOs to work on certain environment problems. He quickly noted, however, that this might serve to undermine the autonomous nature of NGOs.

Some audience members noted the difficulty of legally registering NGOs in China. Acknowledging the complexity of this issue, the Minister reminded the audience that NGO registration is out of SEPA's jurisdiction and is the job of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The minister noted that some environmental NGOs have expressed a desire for SEPA to become more involved in the registration process, even suggesting that SEPA sponsor environmental NGOs. Minister Xie speculated that SEPA sponsorship of NGOs, while making registration easier for some groups, would result in a conflict of interest and only serve to undermine the important work of NGOs. If part of the SEPA family, NGOs would not be able to play an effective outside pressure and monitoring role. Minister Xie did predict that in time, those in charge of NGO registration would revaluate the system and hopefully modify it, making the expansion of the NGO community easier.

Problems in the Air

In response to a question on whether SEPA will increase the use of market mechanisms to control pollution problems, the minister discussed an expanding strategy for air pollution control. As China's ministries and agencies have begun to shrink and become more streamlined, the government needs to rely more on industries to voluntarily adopt strategies to decrease pollution of China's fragile environment. Minister Xie explained that China's air pollution laws require industries exceeding emission standards pay fines—a process that involves heavy government oversight to monitor and fine violators. The Total Emissions Control Law attempts to move beyond such command and control regulation and help push the adoption of new technology and emissions trading.

A multi-track policy for solving air pollution problems in China is crucial to limit exploding SO2 emissions, 42 percent of which is caused by power plants. Minister Xie somberly explained that as China's economy grows, the population will demand even more power. Without strong government intervention, SO2 levels are certain to rise exponentially. In order to proactively resolve this problem, the government has added economic and technological strategies to the existing administrative regulation. In particular, Minister Xie highlighted that new power plants are now required to install advanced desulfurization facilities and older plants must be retrofitted with similar technology in 5 to 7 years.

SEPA also is overseeing the implementation of SO2 emission fees for coal burning power plants. The fee will rise annually, with 20 fen per kilogram charged in 2003, 40 fen in 2004, and up to 60 fen per kilogram in 2005. Minister Xie emphasized that these fee increases will be integral in setting up SO2 emissions trading schemes, which are slowly being implemented in pilot projects around the country. Ultimately such a market mechanism may eventually prove to be a cost effective strategy for dealing with China's largest air pollution problem. He suggested that strengthened environmental laws and stricter emissions standards would be a windfall not just for the environment, but the economy as well; the increased demand for desulfarization services has been a shot in the arm to the environmental technology industry in China.

Although the Chinese government has passed many environmental laws and industries are supposed to be held responsible for cases of pollution, the onus is upon local officials to enforce the laws. Rewards for stimulating economic growth mean local government officials are generally not motivated to stress environmental policies. One attempt to increase pollution control as a local priority was the creation of China's "environmental protection responsibility system." This system is supposed to link the promotion of local officials to environmental performance, but it has not been a great success. Minister Xie went so far to say this responsibility system has failed; the requirements for good environmental performance are too flexible, therefore officials cannot be held to a strict standard.

On the issue of poor local government performance, one audience member challenged the notion that Beijing's air pollution problem is getting better and suggested that the city's air quality might not be up to snuff for the promised Green Olympics in 2008. Minister Xie strongly disagreed with this assertion, pointing to continually improved air quality numbers in Beijing. In 1998, for example, just over 100 days of the year boasted air quality levels that reached the national standard; by 2002 that number jumped to 200 days, and in 2003 the city is estimated to have 219 days at or above the national air quality standard. Minister Xie believes that the Beijing municipal government is making a concerted effort to resolve the myriad air pollution problems: from moving polluting factories out of the city to enforcing advanced European-level automobile emissions standards and increasing the use of low polluting natural gas.

Environmental NGOs: A U.S. Example

Andrew Fahlund was intrigued by Minister Xie's description of the collaborative strategies Chinese environmental NGOs employ while working with the government. While U.S. NGOs cooperate with the government, they differ from their Chinese counterparts in that they often employ confrontational or aggressive monitoring vis-à-vis the government. Fahlund then highlighted how American Rivers has effectively used both cooperative and pressure strategies to promote river protection for nearly 30 years in the United States.

Fahlund quoted author Stephen Ambrose who said that while America's best minds were devoted to discovering nature during the 19th century and then conquering nature during the 20th century, "In the 21st century, the best minds are working on how to restore nature." American Rivers is resolved to spearheading this restoration work. Fahlund profiled efforts by American Rivers to rid the country of dams—an issue of particular interest to China, which is now engaged in the construction, not destruction of dams. Though the pace of dam construction has slowed considerably in recent years, the United States still is home to more than 75,000 dams of five meters or larger; taken over time, nearly one dam has been built everyday since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Through modifying the natural river flow, these dams fragment ecosystems and endanger some animal and plant species. NGOs in the United States not only have fought dam construction, but also have worked to change the operation of existing dams, repair river ecosystems, and advocate the outright removal of some dams that serve little or no purpose.

In part because of NGO involvement, the age of dam building in the United States is, in Andrew Fahlund's words, "dying." But the work of American Rivers is far from over for it is now deeply devoted to changing the way current dams are operated. On the Missouri River, for example, American Rivers and other environmental NGOs would like to make slight modifications to the flow on the river to allow for better ecosystem health and more recreational opportunities. Fahlund insisted that the NGO community, which is currently in litigation with the Army Corps of Engineers to assure a fair settlement on the Missouri River, is not unrealistic in their expectations, for they understand the dams serve some purpose and will not be eliminated. Therefore the American Rivers and the other NGOs are working to bring all stakeholders together to find ways for all to share the river and its resources.

Dams in China

Minister Xie listened with great interest to Andrew, as China has seen its own share of contention over dam construction. At issue in China is the question of economic impact from dams. Minister Xie said that some in China believe dams are built to achieve economic gains, but the benefits are just short term. Andrew informed the minister that American Rivers has performed economic studies in the United States that point to the very same phenomenon. On the Missouri River, for example, economic benefits are less than two million dollars annually; Fahlund speculated that if the river's flow was modified, more recreational opportunities could result in nearly one billion dollars for local economies.

According to Minister Xie, the biggest impediment to the NGO role in monitoring dam construction in China is the lack of information. Agencies and corporations building dams throughout China have done significant studies on the issue and can point to real data when they are forced to prove the dam's utility—NGOs lack the money and ability to perform these kinds of studies, their positions are thus often viewed as weak and it is difficult for environmental activists to have their voices heard.

Dam construction in China is not, however, approved by the government without debate. Minister Xie reported that at a recent interagency meeting on dam construction on the Nu River in Yunnan province officials were bitterly divided. Though the economic interests in dam construction are powerful, SEPA has not been sitting idly by while dams crop up throughout China, particularly on the Nu River, which is one of China's last un-dammed rivers.

In October 2003, Minister Xie traveled to the river and toured the areas where dams were slated for construction. He also organized meetings for experts to present scientific data and engage in a debate weighing the costs and benefits of these dams. While an audience member suggested that many local residents near the Nu River believe the dam will threaten their livelihoods, Minister Xie replied that this was not the majority opinion of residents with whom he spoke. He noted that these residents live in abject poverty and are in fact putting their hopes in the dam and the related hydropower industry to alleviate their economic problems.

Asked about the transboundary problems that may arise from damming the Nu River, which flows into countries in Southeast Asia, Minister Xie insisted China must avoid disrupting the river's flow to the point to which the interest of other countries would be adversely effected. He noted that some neighboring countries are more narrowly concerned with aspects of water quality and quantity. While clearly important issues, Xie believes as countries develop rivers they should not neglect issues of biodiversity protection.

Besides China watchers, audience members included Judith Ayers, U.S. EPA assistant administrator, who expressed EPA's enthusiasm over their strong, multi-faceted working relationship with SEPA. While Minister Xie appears keenly interested in listening to the opinions of all stakeholders inside and outside China, he is clearly limited in what he can do. Like his EPA counterparts in the United States, Minister Xie does not have ultimate power to approve and pass legislation, and cannot go over the head of the central government. His expressed support of NGOs and openness to employing market mechanisms to mitigate pollution emissions indicate that SEPA is moving in a positive direction. While Chinese environmental policy might not always be enforced according to his wishes, audience members agreed that SEPA has made many progressive changes under Minister Xie's leadership.

Drafted by Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer L. Turner.