文章 Articles

Small, yet brave

A series of events on World Environment Day exposed a crisis in China’s environmental governance, argues Liu Jianqiang. To do their job properly, he says, the environment authorities need support.

Article image

Of all China’s government agencies, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) may have the hardest life. They have to deal with the world’s worst pollution and largest population – and without anywhere near enough power to do so. You may as well ask a dwarf to move a mountain.

This was perfectly demonstrated by recent events in Beijing.  

World Environment Day is held on June 5; it is when SEPA and its international counterparts should demonstrate their achievements. But it was this very day that 1,000 Beijing residents chose to surround the administration wearing white T-shirts painted with slogans, as a protest against plans to build a waste incinerator near their homes in Liulitun, Beijing.

Liulitun, in Haidian district, is home to a huge rubbish dump. Locals complain that ever since the dump was established, there has been a terrible stench hanging over the area. They also say that the groundwater has been polluted illegally, and has seriously endangered their health. Cases of lung cancer, pulmonary emphysema, asthma, bronchitis and pharyngitis are on the rise. In a particular community of 1,000 people, 70 have suffered cancer since the year 2000, of which 46 died. Media reports have confirmed the extent of the pollution caused by the dump.

The plans to build a waste-to-energy plant in the area were met with opposition from both locals and scientists, who said that the project would produce dioxins and present a serious threat to public health. So on World Environment Day they gathered in front of SEPA’s offices to demand the project be halted.

This placed SEPA in an awkward position. Environmental protection in China is not a simply a matter of whether or not a certain project will continue polluting; it is a power struggle between different interest groups. This case was no exception – it was power, not science, that decided whether the project would be approved or not. And when it comes to a battle of strength, SEPA rarely has the upper hand. Particularly when the battle is against Beijing’s municipal government, who already had held a press conference announcing the billion-yuan, “pollution-free” project.

You could almost hear the sighs of SEPA officials as they watched the protestors from their office windows. The locals may have believed SEPA had the power to decide these environmental issues, but they were mistaken. In fact, although they should have this power, in most cases they do not. Management of the environment is spread over a number of different departments: urban sewage falls under the remit of the Ministry of Construction; marine pollution of the State Oceanic Administration; agricultural pollution of the Ministry of Agriculture; and power generation is decided by the National Development and Reform Commission. While river water is managed by the Ministry of Water Resources, the riverbanks are handled by SEPA – and never the twain shall meet. As SEPA’s deputy director, Pan Yue, said: “Everyone fights over these different powers, but as soon as there is a problem they come to us: everyone assumes that we are responsible for environmental incidents in China.”

Despite being virtually powerless, SEPA has not backed out of the fight. It has launched attacks on 30 major companies, including the main contractor for the Three Gorges Dam; dealt with illegal activity in the oil sector; and sparked a number of crackdowns known as “environmental storms.” In doing so, it has acquired a great number of enemies. SEPA has already reached the limit of its powers; often its actions have little legal weight. Its use of “regional restrictions” earlier this year in order turn down applications for new industrial projects by the country’s four main power generators was the most extreme sanction SEPA has ever managed to enact. Pan Yue himself said: “We have no more tricks up our sleeve.”

These repeated battles mean there can be little doubt about SEPA’s courage in the public mind. But its weakness is also apparent. There are calls for SEPA to be upgraded to a ministry, but it remains an agency-level organisation rather than an independent department established by the State Council. This leaves it struggling to participate in policy-making, to coordinate with other departments or to solve environmental disputes. Its administrative powers are simply inadequate. For instance, SEPA would like to implement the concept of “green GDP” and evaluate government officials according to their environmental record. But this is difficult to do: nobody is scared of SEPA. And Pan Yue agrees. “I wouldn’t be scared of us either,” said Pan. “We cannot force a project to cease; we cannot fine anyone more than 15 million yuan; we cannot have officials fired; we cannot even manage our own local branches. What is there to be scared of?”

But the demonstration wasn’t the only worry for SEPA officials on World Environment Day. In southeast China’s city of Xiamen, there was also opposition to a 10-billon-yuan chemical plant slated to be built four kilometres away from a school of 5,000 students. There are 100,000 people living within five kilometres of the site.

The head of SEPA’s environmental assessment department, Zhu Xingxiang, met with representatives of the opponents of the plant. He had to explain that as the investment was provided by local government, and the project already had approval from the National Development and Reform Commission, there was nothing SEPA could do.

At the same time, Taihu Lake, the most important freshwater lake in China’s economically prosperous Yangtze River delta, was choked by blue-green algae, causing panic as over 200,000 people found their tap water was undrinkable. This is China’s most serious case of drinking water pollution to date.

The first local to complain about the problem was Wu Lihong. He was detained by the local government for “attempting to blackmail businesses in the name of the environment.” He had brought attention to environmental pollution in the area for over a decade, and was regarded as one of the 10 citizens who had done most for environmental protection in the country. In an interview with the China Business Herald in November last year, Wu stated the reason for failures to deal with pollution, saying that “some officials shield the polluters.” He stated that over half the seats in the local People’s Representative Conference and Political Consultative Committee were held by bosses of polluting firms.

Despite its weakness, SEPA is still fighting its corner. The SEPA website carried a statement by Pan Yue on June 7 suggesting the Liulitun project should be delayed to allow for greater consultation. SEPA is also to carry out an environmental impact assessment in Xiamen, which it hopes will be the basis for changes in the local government’s plans, and may improve the fate of those living close to the proposed chemical plant.

 “Environmental issues cannot be solved by just one or two government departments – public participation is also needed,” said Pan. “We hope local governments can provide the platform necessary for the people to exercise their right to know, to supervise and to participate.”

SEPA has consistently made its position clear, but it continues to speak of “hopes” and “suggestions.” It does not have the power to make decisions. If we expect this organisation to deal with the huge issues it faces, we must change the systems and legislation that surround it, and grant them increased power.

Liu Jianqiang is a Beijing-based investigative journalist

Homepage photo by John Pasden

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



(P.S.: 作者发表的中文评论:正是英文评论的翻译,请管理员注意编辑一下)


Pitiful and worshipful SEPA. We are too powerless to influence the struggles between different interest groups. However, as common citizens, we should try our best to take actions to support SEPA, since we concern about our environment.

As I know, many senior officials in the state council profoundly concern about the environmental issues, meanwhile they have great determines to resolve these issues. But the struggles between different interest groups are long-term problems and can not be figured out in a short time. The power of capital gets increasing as the Chinese economy blossoming, the associations of corrupted officials and profiteers dispute implementations of policies that are made by the state council. It is not only in the sector of environmental protection, poor management of official is always the biggest barrier for implementing policies in many other sectors.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The problem is system!

The root of China's environmental problems lies in the system. If the system does not change, then environmental conservation in China can only make gradual, arduous steps forward, and will not have a profound effect.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Excellent article

This article tells it like it is. If china is serious about fixing its environment, it must give SEPA the power and the funding to do its job. it's time for polluters to become a little scared of SEPA.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Arguing for SEPA

Having read this article from the Beijing-based journalist, my mind is extreme heavy. SEPA means nothing for some of the well-established businesses! I've dined out with the top executives of some of the state-owned companies. They treated environmental movement brought about by SEPA as something of trivial importance, and they even verbally attacked Mr. Pan Yue's personal integrity. It is very strange that the heads of environmental protection bureau are always blamed by their superiors as creators of obstacles for business development and thus as someone who should be kicked out of the place! If it is not seen with my own eyes, I would never believe this: Zhongwei, a county in Ningxia Province, has actually provided desert land for free for hundreds of heavy pollutors and attracted them to build up factories and to pour poisoned water directly. This has polluted the source of Yellow River. The dozens of food producers in the well-known Taiwanese Food Industry Zone in Wuhan has actually no wasted water processing facilities! They are directly giving out their wastes into the Yueya Lake of the city! Go look at the waters in Wuhan, is the situation of abundand nutrition pollution there anything different than that of Tai Lake? The poisoned gas emitted from Qilu Petrochemicals is more than enough to kill a man. But not far away, there's the residential area for the employees!? The surface of Dianchi Lake in Yunnan Province has turned paint-like green. You can imagine the degree of pollution underneath. However, the local officials announced publicly that this would never influence the implementation of safety standards for drinking water?! Why did they do this? That's because that the officials in local environmental protection bureau do not report to SEPA, instead, they report to their corresponding regional governments (and are therefore under the latter's control). Because of these, SEPA has become an actor of solo comedy dialogue, with business leaders laughing at their environmental movement and doing nothing more. This is the true reason behind the failure of the cleaning-up of Yellow River and Huaihe River, the construction of some emission pipes leading all the way to the heart of Yangtze River and the invisibility of desulfurization devices in some large scale power plants. How sad it is! Who can build SEPA into the legislation system? What we can do now is only to cross fingers for the top leaders of provincial level, city level, regional level and county level to be responsible, for the business people to have their conscious minds, and for the public as a whole to realize the importance and be part of it! I'm begging for that!!!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







陕西省妈妈环保志愿者 西安环境大使 珙桐

What to prioritize: the environment or the economy?

Environmental problems are no longer merely pollution problems; they affect numerous, multi-faceted issues, such as the protection of benefits, economic development and environmental conservation. Are any of these of greater or lesser importance? The rise of government debt is closely correlated with these issues...Closely related to these issues, moreover, is whether one takes a soft or tough stance on environmental conservation, and what law enforcement rights the judiciary allots to the Environmental Conservation Agency (such as rights to impose administrative penalties). Will the great task of history be carried by this "little man" - the Environmental Conservation Agency? How will it face so many environmental disasters? We should advocate that the National People’s Congress pay close attention to these issues! If we go on this way, positive and rapid development will forever be an empty promise! The consequences of economic development will be matched by massive expenditures: the costs necessary for medical treatment, the regeneration of the eco-system, and the management of pollution…Even discounting the budget, one knows that the National People’s Congress must be made aware of a mechanism that is not smoothly administered.
NGO’s for environmental conservation allow us to show our support for the National Environmental Conservation Agency. Together with them, we can face these ubiquitous dangers to the environment, to advocate justice and undertake actions to conserve the environment, in order to salvage the living environment for future generations. The supervision of polluting businesses must be put before the county-level National Congress, to demand that government officials take responsibility. To establish a harmonious society, one cannot allow the environment to become a lasting grievance for current and future generations!
- Gong Tong: Environmental conservation volunteer from Shaanxi province / Xi’an Environmental Ambassador