By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
With China’s once-a-decade leadership transition scheduled to get underway in roughly three weeks, pundits and scholars inside China and out have been debating whether the next generation of leaders has what it takes to pursue the political and economic reforms necessary to address what some see as increasingly dangerous levels of discontent in society. But if China’s next leaders are genuinely concerned with keeping peace on the streets, there’s a more direct way for them to achieve their goals: Find a way to enforce the country’s environmental regulations.
Chinese authorities’ continued failure to control industrial pollution, combined with the growth of a NIMBY mentality among the country’s ever more affluent citizenry, is proving to be an increasingly dangerous combination. At least twice this year, China saw massive environmental protests escalate into violent clashes with authorities that made international headlines.
In early July, violent demonstrations broke out in the city of Shifang, in Sichuan province, against a metals plant the city government had approved despite widespread citizen concerns over future pollution. The police, called in to break up demonstrations, tear-gassed and arrested dozens of protesters, including young students. News of the clash quickly spread to social media websites, where it prompted widespread outrage. After a few days, the Shifang government reversed its previous decision and announced that it had permanently cancelled construction of the project.
A few weeks later, similarly violent clashes erupted in the city of Qidong, in Jiangsu province, over a planned pipeline that threatened to pollute waters used by fisheries. In Qidong, as in Shifang, local authorities quickly backtracked on the proposed project. Willy Wo-Lop Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the University of Hong Kong, noted that the protests “demonstrated that ordinary people’s awareness of their rights has increased and that they are more willing to assert their rights.”
The results of both protests were good for the protesters in question but bad for China’s leaders. Chinese people now know that violent protests, if they grow large enough, can be more effective as a means to enforcing environmental protections than appealing to government environmental protection authorities. Given the number of environmental problems spread around the country, this should give Beijing pause.
Why is China’s environmental protection regime so broken?
The enforcement of environmental regulations in China is often hampered by conflicts between the agendas of local government officials and citizens. The public is openly skeptical about the function of public hearings, and documented efforts to manipulate public opinion haven’t helped.
Take the example of Dongguan, in Guangdong Province, where a public hearing was announced in May 2011 over a proposal to raise the price of the city’s tap water. No one showed up, and conflicting voices explained why. One resident who had attended a public hearing on the same issue the previous year was quoted in the state-run China Daily as saying “the meeting was used as a mere rubber stamp in which real public opinion would never be accepted.” However, the ”secretary-general of the Dongguan consumers’ committee” said that citizens didn’t attend because “the consumers’ ideas are quite immature, and their democratic thoughts need improvements.”
Pressures from Beijing to increase local GDP and revenue are well known to be a major cause of faulty or failing application of laws by local governments. It has long been recognized that environmental regulations are poorly drafted and inadequately enforced.
Environmental specialists want local governments to provide citizens with detailed information about proposed projects to support informed opinion. But in order for public participation to work, both officials and citizens must be educated and trained on its mechanics, such as the conduct of public hearings. This is no easy matter, since local officials often neither seek nor heed public sentiment and the public, in turn, has often grown doubtful about officials’ motivation. What might change this response to heightened public concern? Recent protests and media discussions suggest that citizens’ rising concerns about damage to the environment may stimulate an increased role for environmental NGOs in local government decision-making on possible projects. This might be a convergence of forces that could together increase the pressure on officials.
This summer China’s oldest environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, sued a chemical company for dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste into the Pearl River in Yunnan Province, which, according to a report in the journal Nature on the rise of “green protests,” is the first time a “grass-roots group has succeeded in bringing a case against a polluter in China.”
Friends of Nature’s deputy director told the journal that the case “is a new initiative to allow pollution victims and entities like NGOs to bring cases to court against polluters.” He cautioned that some issues still needed to be ironed out but added “we are hoping this will set a precedent” for other NGOs and members of the public to bring similar cases. The same article quotes Alex Wang, an environmental lawyer with years of experience in China (and my colleague at the Berkeley Law School) welcoming the lawsuit as signaling an opportunity for NGOs to participate in enforcing environmental laws. He added, however, that “only time will tell whether this turns into precedent or remains a one-time event.”
Increased governmental transparency can only begin to address, but not solve, the complex relationships between citizens, local officials and polluters in China. One recent study (pdf) describes how, in a village in Yunnan, local officials and a polluting factory agreed that the factory would make substantial yearly payments to local residents that would quiet protest and keep it from higher levels of government, while also making it profitable for the residents to overlook ongoing injury to their health caused by the factory’s toxic emissions.
Nevertheless, if China’s next leaders wish to remove one potential source of social discord as it tries to steer the country through the next phase of its development, they would do well to genuinely embrace the potential for NGOs to help enforce environmental regulations at a local level – to use them to push for more transparency and accountability at that level. China is too large a country, and with too many environmental problems, for Beijing next generation leadership to simply think they can continue to do business as usual.