Minding the enforcement gap

The dismissal of six environmental-protection officials in Anhui – simply for doing their job – is a sorry reminder of the chasm between central government ambition and local realities, says Ma Jun.

On June 17, China Central Television (CCTV) reported that six environmental-protection officials in Guzhen, a county in China’s eastern Anhui province, had been removed from their posts by the local government. The deputy secretary of the local disciplinary commission explained why: they had visited one company – tyre manufacturer Innova Rubber three times in a month. “Doing that to a business really impacts on our development environment,” he said.

Environmental supervision is one of the local environmental protection bureau’s responsibilities. By carrying out three checks in one month – and one of these was merely a telephone call to request the results of coal tests and receipts for production materials – it was simply fulfilling a duty entrusted to it by the central government. So how did this become a transgression that the local government could not ignore?

The statement from the disciplinary commission makes it clear. It wasn’t carrying out three checks on one company in a month that was the problem; it was the belief that this would affect the “development environment” – that is, the local government’s ability to attract investment. Increasing local GDP is crucial to advancing the careers of local officials, and so drawing and protecting investment is the main task for the government organs they control.

And Guzhen’s campaign for investment is in a league of its own. According to the CCTV report, the local government website features eight commitments to investors, including a promise that if you invest 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) or more in fixed assets locally, the county party secretary and county head will act as your assistants. Encounter a problem, and you can get them to sort it out. The company in this case had invested US$15 million (102 million yuan). When the environmental bureau picked a fight, the local leaders naturally lent a hand.

While this is an extreme case, it is not an isolated one. Many polluting firms have plaques hanging up announcing their status as “Key Protected Businesses”, which gives them a certain level of protection from environmental laws. In 2007, the city of Hefei – again in Anhui – issued new regulations for “optimising” the investment environment, restricting checks by any single government body on any single company to a maximum of one per year. This was clearly designed to weaken environmental oversight and standards in order to win investor approval. The deputy secretary of the Guzhen disciplinary commission made it perfectly clear: “What happens inside their walls is their business, what happens outside is ours – and our business is to provide good services.”

A company’s property is of course its own. But that does not make it an independent fiefdom. It is still subject to state laws and regulation, including those that protect the environment. If it is not effectively controlled, the pollution the company produces will impact on the environment beyond its walls and even directly affect the health and safety of local communities. To reduce the government’s role to mere provision of services to investors, and to go so far as to remove environmental officials from their posts for visiting company premises, is heavy-handed interference with environmental-law enforcement.

The hiring, firing and working conditions of local environmental officials are under the control of local government. Even environmental authorities set on strict enforcement cannot touch major tax contributors – and personnel who stick to their guns will find they lose their job. This case demonstrates, once again, that as long as environmental authorities are subordinate to growth-hungry local governments, there can be no genuine environmental-law enforcement and no effective pollution control.

Ma Jun is director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Homepage image from Greenpeace