The Chinese data chase

Fearful of stifling economic development, China’s local environmental authorities are still falling short on data disclosure, seven grassroots groups found in an innovative study. Amy Sim explains.

“As a civil society organisation, we must step up our work to support information disclosure, increase our own capacities and improve our skills in making information requests,” said Liu Hong Ming, a member of the Shanghai branch of Friends of Nature, China’s oldest environmental NGO.

Liu was speaking in response to the results of an evaluation of access to environmental information in China, designed by Article 19 – an international organisation that campaigns for freedom of expression – and the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV) at the China University of Political Science and Law. Friends of Nature was one of seven grassroots, non-profit groups to participate in the research.

The study, the findings of which were published in December (see the English version here and the Chinese here), mobilised grassroots organisations in seven areas across China – Hebei, Gansu, Beijing, Yunnan, Chongqing, Henan and Shanghai – to assess the extent to which China’s local environmental protection bureaus (EPBs) are meeting their obligations to provide environmental data under two pieces of legislation: the Open Government Information Regulations (“OGI Regulations”) and the Measures on Open Environmental Information (“OEI Measures”), enacted in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

Its aim was to identify the existing conditions and challenges in accessing environmental information, to promote transparency in environmental governance and encourage civil-society organisations to exercise their right to information.

The participants first examined the websites and publications of EPBs to find out which of the 17 types of environmental information listed in the OEI Measures have been proactively disclosed. A similar review was then carried out on local large-scale enterprises to determine whether or not they publish relevant environmental information. Finally, the participating organisations made requests to their local EPBs for information that was not proactively disclosed.

The study found it most difficult to obtain information on enterprises that have been involved in major or serious environmental-pollution incidents or exceeded emission-control targets, and information on the output and treatment of hazardous waste and pollutants. None of the EPBs surveyed provided complete and up-to-date information on their lists of excessively polluting enterprises. Some withheld the information completely. Beijing was the only city that published data on the output and treatment of waste and pollutants on their website; the other bureaus either did not respond to the requests for this information or only provided partial information.

The reasons given by the EPBs for non-disclosure were usually very brief, such as “inconvenient to disclose”, “difficult to disclose” and “can be easily sensationalised by the media”, without reference to the exception for disclosure stated in the OGI Regulations or considerations of public interest. An NGO based in north China, Hebei Green Concert, was refused pollution data on the basis that they were trade secrets and their disclosure could draw media attention or lead to unnecessary disputes.

The EPBs appear to be unwilling to release pollution information, especially specific data, for fear of affecting economic development or generating bad press. Yet economic development can only be sustainable if environmental impact is minimised. The current approach of prioritising economic development is short-sighted and can undermine the credibility of the environmental authorities.

In Shanghai, the EPB refused to provide information on pollutant-discharge volume, allocation quotas and pollutant disposal on the grounds that the information was not available. But, interestingly, when asked for information on Shanghai Richina Leather, one of the enterprises “blacklisted” in 2009, Shanghai’s EPB disclosed three documents on local environmental behaviour and evaluation standards, environmental data on the firm and its environmental-supervision report. [See chinadialogue’s three-part exposé on Shanghai Richina Leather for more information on the company’s environmental breaches.]

With access to such information, grassroots environmental organisations and the public will have a better understanding of how environmental pollution is governed and be able to support the government in monitoring industrial activity.

Disclosure by enterprises themselves was highly limited. Very few large enterprises provided environmental information, even when it was explicitly requested in writing, through letters, faxes and other means. These enquiries were often ignored or refused. In Zhaotong city in China’s south-western province of Yunnan, for example, out of eight enterprises surveyed, only one responded to say that the requested information was already published on their website.

“It is extremely difficult to get environmental information from enterprises, especially large ones, who refuse to disclose environmental information and hide behind their size and official accolades,” said a member of Yunnan Zhaotong Municipal Resources Environmental Protection Society. “They are unwilling to publish information on the type and quantity of pollutants discharged, or whether standards have been exceeded, stating that publication will affect profit.”

At present, there is a lack of legal requirements for enterprises to provide information on their environmental impact to the public. The OGI Regulations and OEI Measures do not mandate that enterprises disclose environmental information, except those known to have exceeded national or local pollution standards and quotas. Rather, enterprises are encouraged to voluntarily disclose environmental information promptly and accurately.

The study did reveal some positive developments, however. In the seven regions where research was conducted, EPBs disclosed a significant amount of information relating to environmental laws, environmental planning, administrative setup and procedures.

Except for the cities of Shijiazhuang in Hebei, north China, and Zhaotong in Yunnan, the other five cities in the survey proactively published most of the 17 types of information mandated by the OEI Measures. The Beijing and Lanzhou EPBs have also established a public environmental-information section on their websites, with a catalogue, search-engine function and other features designed to facilitate public access to information and the submission of information requests.

According to the participating organisations, the EPBs surveyed displayed a good attitude in general when handling information requests. But it required constant reminders and follow-up to actually obtain responses.

Overall, the study indicates an improvement in the mindset and performance of environmental authorities with regards to the disclosure of environmental information. However, current practices are still far from meeting the environmental information needs of the public and do not fully comply with existing regulations.

A member of the Gansu Green House of Volunteers, an NGO based in west China, summarised his experience in participating in this test: “There are improvements in environmental information disclosure at the provincial and municipal levels. This is a big change from how it used to be. It shows that there is progress in both mindsets and behaviours; however, there is still a wide gap to meeting public demands. Not all the information that should be published is disclosed, and in particular the exposure of polluting enterprises is still very weak and must be improved and taken seriously.


Amy Sim is senior programme officer for Asia at Article 19.

Access to Environmental Information in China: Evaluation of Local Compliance”, was conducted as part of the project Access to Environmental Information in China, jointly run by Article 19 and CLAPV. Other activities in the project include training on the right to information for environmental officers and representatives of civil-society organisations, a workshop on findings of the study and the publication of a book on access to environmental information.

Homepage image from Greenpeace shows a coal-ash disposal site in China.