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the evolution of china’s environmental policy

The latest issue of Conservation and Society is out. And it contains an interesting account of the evolution of China’s environment policy by the Peking University’s Maohong Bao.

For instance, did you know that…

“Since China’s leadership purported to employ the mechanism of unified planning with due consideration for all aspects of the economy and the society, which was supposedly more superior than in a capitalist system, the Chinese government did not recognise environmental problems. The aim of socialism was to satisfy the needs of the masses, so how could it damage the masses? It was only in a capitalist society, where capitalists received profit at the cost of environmental destruction regardless of the welfare of workers and peasants that environmental problems existed. However, there was the question of why the Soviet Union had environmental problems, where socialism was built for the first time in the human history. It was believed that the Soviet Union became a revisionist country. In the context of the ideology of this era, China did not have an environmental policy, even if environmental problems had already appeared.”

From there, Bao details how things began changing around 1972, the creation of the Chinese environmental policy, its initial implementation (by state dictat), its early fate (failure) followed by better results thereafter, and closes by describing the four problems that continue to stymie sustainable development in the middle kingdom. To a large extent, all the problems come back to this infernal tradeoff between environmental wellbeing and economic growth. Read on. You will see. (While on that point, also see this Businessworld Interview with Pan Yue, the vice chairman of China’s State Environment Protection Agency.)

“The first problem is bureaucratic fragmentation. The various organisations that are responsible for formulating, implementing and supervising environmental policy have overlapping functions and unclear rights and responsibilities… The National People’s Congress is the highest legislative body. The Committee of Environment and Resources is responsible for crafting law on the environment and natural resources. It (in turn) mandates that the national Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drafts environmental legislation because the members of this committee are usually retired officials from the CCP and administrative organisations who are not themselves qualified to undertake investigation and to draft law…. The National Committee of Environmental Protection in the State Council, which consists of the members from various ministries and committees, is in charge of harmonising the environmental affairs of related departments. It also supervises the State Council in creating the national policy of environmental protection within the context of drawing up a national economic plan. The Committee of Environment and Resources of the National People’s Congress has started supervising and checking. It is obvious that these three organisations have no separate functions and lack the mechanism of supervising each other.

Various ministries and committees have their own environmental bureaus that are not subordinate to the national EPA (it was approved as a ministry in 1998). From the perspective of administrative relations, these bureaus generally follow the regulations of their own ministries and committees when the ideas of the national EPA and its own ministries differ. Local environmental protection bureaus at all levels have incomplete vertical relations with the national EPA. While the national EPA leads the professional work and policy decisions of the local bureaus, local party committees and governments allocate their personnel and administrative funds. When local authorities push for high economic growth and pursue administrative goals, local environmental protection bureaus are often unable to implement environmental protection policies.

The second problem is that environmental protection is in conflict with economic growth. The core work of the CCP and the central government still focuses on the economic development of China. This means continuing to seek high economic growth, while trying to follow sustainable development. Promotion for officials at all levels is mainly based upon their ability to promote economic growth. Under such circumstances, environmental policy is mainly an economic instrument. Therefore it has defects.”

For instance, take China’s township and village enterprises.

“…there were previously no available concrete environmental policies for townships and village enterprises that were developing rapidly. The discharge fee and penalty system were aimed mainly at state-owned enterprises. They were allowed to add this fee into the cost of the product and transfer it to the price of the product. The increase in price did not affect its sale because most of these enterprises were monopolies. The rural township and village enterprises depended on the low price of products to scramble for market shares because they lacked monopoly privileges. Once the fee was added to the cost of product, the enterprise was less competitive. Therefore, these enterprises attempted to escape the fee levy system by every means possible. Since the number of rural township and village enterprises was very large and dispersed, the local environmental protection bureaus were unable to manage these enterprises, which often lacked their own environmental protection departments. Serious environmental problems also took place in private enterprises. These defects resulted in rampant environmental deterioration in the countryside….”

The third problem, he says, is structural contradictions or defects within the law and its implementation of environmental protection standards and practices.

“China’s environmental law system contains eleven sources (Alford and Shen 1998). They are: the constitution of the People’s Republic of China; the international agreements that China has signed; the basic law of environment enacted by the National People’s Congress (NPC); other laws related to the environment issued by the NPC’s standing committee; interpretations of the constitution and the basic law issued by the standing committee; administrative regulations having the force of law issued by the State Council; ministerial regulations and national environmental standards issued by national ministries and commissions; interpretations issued by the State Council, national ministries and commissions, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procurer to carry out their work; environmental regulations issued by the People’s Congresses at the sub-national level; regulations and other legal orders issued by the executive branch of the people’s governments at the sub-national level; individual cases decided by the Supreme People’s Court and lower level courts.”

Confusion between law and administrative regulation, he says, weakens the seriousness and authority of law, while also reducing the efficiency of administrative regulation.

“… courts and procuratorates at all levels have the right to interpret law and regulation in the process of implementing and supervising laws and regulations. The Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate should have had the highest right of interpretation, but all the courts and procuratorates at subnational levels offer their interpretations in the light of locally specific conditions. Thus various explanations resulted in confusion and lower efficiency of law implementation and local protection. Additionally, since the funds and salary of courts at all sub-national levels are allocated by the local government and they are answerable to (because the court is appointed by the local people’s congress) the local people’s congress, party committee and government, the judiciary could not be independent and was heavily influenced bylocal officials. The implementation of environmental law often served the so-called
overall situation of local economic development. Thus, environmental law lacked the power of criminal punishment and its standards were seriouslydistorted. Ultimately, the efficiency of its implementation was seriously damaged.”

The fourth problem has to do with the Chinese peasants. As in India, their “nice and simple environmental protection consciousness… has been destroyed.”

“Under Mao, peasants became the main force who fought against heaven and earth and tried to conquer and remake nature. Under Deng, peasants cultivated new value orientations that include ‘Looking toward money in everything’ (Shapiro 2001). Peasants over-cultivated and over-used chemical fertiliser and pesticides in their contracted land; herdsman overgrazed in contracted pastures; peasants created farmland in the contracted waste hillsides. The only aim of these activities was to get rich actively, which not only resulted in the exhaustion of fertility in contracted land, degradation of vegetation, soil erosion and desertification in contracted grassland,but also created a serious ‘tragedy of the commons’ in public land. Since they did not carry forward new measures for rural reform, especially with respect to the right of property, the task of improving the rural ecological environment is still extremely arduous (Menzies 1991; Yeh 2000).

Grassroots environmentalism only appeared in urban areas and peasants were hardly involved. The first environmental NGO in China was set up on March 31, 1994. It was the Academy for Green Culture (now called the Friends of Nature) established by historian Liang Congjie… (similarly) over 2000 environmental NGOs were established by November 2001… NGOs have devoted themselves mainly to reclaiming wasteland, observing birds, planting trees, protecting endangered animals, establishing green communities and launching green consumption, etc. It has been difficult for them to register and to get adequate funds. Membership is compose d mainly of the middle class; ordinary people and peasants have not taken part in them. Thus, the efficiency of their activities has been unsatisfactory (Brettell 2000). Environmental NGOs can play a more prominent role in China only by combining environmental protection with poverty elimination. The weakness of environmental awareness amongst Chinese peasants has seriously affected the implementation of the environmental protection policy in China.”


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