Greening the two sessions

As Beijing closes its yearly conference season, Chen Yuanyuan reports on new ways civil society is getting ideas across.

China’s parliamentary season – the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – has been in full swing these past two weeks and, as usual, green campaign groups and earnest environmentalists have been actively promoting eco-friendly proposals. They hope that NPC deputies and CPPCC members will take up their causes and pass them on to the country’s decision-makers. (The Global Times has an explainer of the differences between the NPC and CPPCC here. Essentially, the first is a legislative body and its motions legally binding, while the second is advisory only.)

But how are these civil society proposals formed? And is it possible to turn them into action?

“In just three decades, the world trade in shark fin has shot up from less than 4,000 tonnes to almost 14,000 tonnes. Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan account for more than 95% of the trade and consumption of shark fin.” So begins a proposal to ban shark fin from the menus of official and government banquets put forward by CPPCC member Wan Jie and the NPC deputy Ding Liguo.

The submission moves from an array of statistics to the key recommendation: “The consumption of shark fin wastes public resources,” and should be expressly banned at official and government banquets. At only 800 words, the proposal has condensed the collective wisdom of Wan Jie, Ding Liguo – and the think tank behind them.

Wan Jie is the boss of a publishing business, but he has another identity too: he is a director of the Alxa SEE Ecological Association. In 2010, this band of entrepreneurs started to put together a “think tank”, with input from environmental protection NGOs and activists. The idea is that each organisation’s specialist knowledge can help to inform Alxa’s members, who are also NPC deputies and CPPCC members. In the process, these NGOs have a chance to influence parliamentary proposals. With, for example, the shark-fin submission, they have succeeded in doing so. This represents a new way in which green civil society is playing a role in government decision-making.

This wasn’t Wan Jie’s first attempt to influence shark-fin policy. During the CPPCC session last year, he was the main sponsor of a proposal that called for the establishment of “a statute to ban the trade of shark fin”, jointly submitted with 45 other CPPCC members, including businesswoman Yang Lan, TV personality Jiang Kun and novelist Feng Jicai.

This year, Wan Jie submitted another proposal intended to limit shark-fin consumption, influenced by figures including Zhang Xingsheng, director-general of the north Asian arm of The Nature Conservancy, a US charity. But this time the strategy had changed: rather than focus on an outright trade ban, the authors instead called for shark fin consumption to be outlawed at official banquets.

This proposal argues that, from now on, banning the trade and consumption of shark fin will become a global trend. Since shark fin is so expensive, the campaigners say, offering it at banquets consumes a disproportionate sum from the public coffers. As the government continues its campaign to drive down official expenses, such a ban is an essential step.

Compared to most CPPCC members, Wan Jie is a very active submitter of proposals. Every year, he brings a clutch of carefully prepared submissions to the conference, and they always relate to environmental protection. Waste-management is another favourite: for three consecutive years, he has made recommendations on this topical issue. 

In 2010, at the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh CPPCC, Wan Jie put forward “A scientific plan for rubbish incineration facilities, developing source reduction”. It recommended establishing a system for overseeing waste-management, from classification to collection, transport and disposal.

In 2011, Wan again turned his attention to waste classification and recycling. After careful discussion with green NGOs, he submitted his “proposal with regards to promoting rubbish classification in China”. It was subsequently adopted as one of 10 top-priority proposals, leading the CPPCC’s National Committee for Handling Proposals to launch a research project and convene a forum of related departments.

This year, the government has spent a lot of effort promoting rubbish classification, and public awareness of this issue has greatly improved. So what’s next on the agenda? After talking the issue over with the think tank, Wan Jie believes the next step should be promoting realistic development of the recycling industry.

“In the past, officials were a little afraid of civil society environmental protection groups, and refused to engage with them, but now everybody can sit down to discuss issues together, carry out research and improve mutual understanding,” said Wan Jie. “Not only has the government helped NGOs to better understand national policies, but has also deepened its own understanding of the role NGOs can play in promoting the reduction of waste. As a result, the government attaches more importance to the power of NGO participation in the administration and discussion of state affairs.” It’s a very good start, he said.

Green activist Huang Xiaoshan also has a long-standing focus on waste disposal. In 2009, he took part in a protest against construction of the Asuwei waste-incineration plant in Beijing; at the start of 2010, as a civic representative of the opponents of waste incineration, he visited Japan and Macau with government officials to study rubbish disposal techniques and look for ways to stop cities being encircled by rubbish; and, in 2011, Huang designed, created and operated Green House, a community waste-classification platform which trialled a city disposal scheme.

Before this year’s two conferences were convened, through discussion at the SEE think tank, Wan and Huang decided to see if they could advance a new idea in the realm of waste management.

In Hebei province, Huang visited a workshop where washing waste by hand and burning plastic had created serious secondary pollution, awakening him to the complexities of rubbish disposal. “The more carefully ordinary people sort their rubbish, the more urgent our need for suitable final treatment facilities,” he said. And so Huang has proposed the establishment of a comprehensive waste-management system, including construction of industrial parks with closed-loop production and effective supervision of the waste disposal industry.

Over at the NPC, civil-society input is also being felt. NPC deputies Yang Xingping and Chen Jie this year put forward suggested amendments to the “Environmental Impact Assessment Law” – suggestions made largely thanks to input from Shen You, head of the Chengdu Bird Watching Society.

Through his experience of environmental-protection in China, Shen You has come to the conclusion that areas not expressly regulated by law are liable to get tangled up in endless technical arguments: which level of the hierarchy has the power to examine and approve engineering projects? How can environmental impact assessments be publicised in a way that meets the criteria?  Who should measure the base values of environmental impact assessments? These are the sorts of questions that hold important processes up.

While researching China’s environmental impact assessments, Shen discovered that current laws lack clauses relating to the overall ecosystem. And so he has suggested that, in areas where the ecology fulfils an important function, or is particularly sensitive, and in the planning and construction of key nationally protected ecological zones, improvements should be made to assessment methods and guidelines.

In addition to his NGO position, Shen has a role overseeing political participation of relevant departments and the public at the Chengdu Municipal Committee of China Zhi Gong Party. He has rich experience in putting forward high-quality proposals and motions.

“The legal topics we probe are wide-ranging,” said Shen. “For example, supposing we succeed in amending a law, next we will pay attention to the administration of that law. Last year, we suggested an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act, and this year we put are putting forward an amendment to the Environmental Impact Assessment Act. The two moves are related.”

This article was first published in China Environment News, where Chen Yuanyuan is a reporter.

This article is published as part of our Green Growth project, a collaboration between 
chinadialogue and The Energy Foundation.

Translated by Simon Haigh

Homepage image by  Wang Xinqing