Ranking transparency in Chinese cities

Guest post by Alex Wang, director of the China Environmental Law Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council

We are pleased to release the English version of our 2008-09 Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI), a collaboration between the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  As you may recall, PITI is an evaluation and ranking of environmental transparency in 113 Chinese cities.  We released these results (in Chinese) last summer and the response has been very positive. 

At the end of last year, we learned that China Economic Times, an influential national Chinese newspaper, selected PITI as one of the top ten environmental events of 2009, saying:

[PITI] can be called a model of non-governmental organizations playing their role of supervising government.  Here, NGOs have not simply relied on passion and a spirit of protecting environmental interests, but have drawn from the power of expertise, and used legal channels and dialogue with the government.  Perhaps there are local governments that do not know much about these two organizations, but the scientific-nature and rigor of the evaluation system make it impossible for government officials to ignore these results.  Therein lies progress. 

Of course, what matters is whether all of this work and attention is helping to expand environmental transparency and improve environmental quality in China.  We have seen the cities themselves beginning to pay attention.  In May 2010, IPE and NRDC worked with Environmental Protection Magazine to sponsor a workshop in Weihai, Shandong Province for more than 50 government officials to discuss ways to improve environmental transparency.  Lanzhou, one of the low scorers in the 2008-09 evaluation, came to the conference to unveil a new online environmental information platform.  A number of cities talked openly about the challenges of improving environmental information disclosure.  More recently, a number of cities have referenced PITI in their open information annual reports.  For example, Zhengzhou Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau’s annual open information report noted Zhengzhou’s (positive) performance on the PITI evaluation in responding to public information requests. The Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area also raised PITI in its annual open information report

More importantly, our preliminary results for the 2009-10 PITI evaluation show that government offices have been more responsive to environmental information requests.   

Nonetheless, there is clearly still a long way to go.  Many cities are still not adhering to the open information regulations and disclosing basic environmental information as required by Chinese law.  The Legal Daily reported in June 2010 that, after two years of implementation of China’s open information regulations, environmental disclosure still faced many obstacles.  A government official from Hebei Province cited in the article noted that some government officials fear that disclosure will cause collective incidents or petitions, or still adhere to the outdated view that the public need not have access to government information.  Another leading Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekend, sent out twenty-nine information requests to provincial-level environmental protection bureaus (EPBs) seeking lists of enterprises that had been issued administrative fines for environmental violations.  While twelve EPBs responded to the requests, the other EPBs were not so cooperative:  thirteen remained silent, three refused to reply and one attached conditions to disclosure.  Environmental groups that have made requests for environmental information have similarly reported challenges in obtaining information that is commonly disclosed in other countries.

What’s Next?

We will be releasing our 2009-10 PITI evaluation results in the next few months, which will give us a clearer sense of whether or not there has been progress in China’s environmental transparency over the last year.  We hope that this information will serve as a basis for others to conduct their own research and help to bring about greater environmental transparency.  Professors at University of California at Berkeley and Yale have already done some very interesting preliminary analysis into the factors that correlate with PITI ranking.  They found that:

First, the financial strength of a city’s government is a crucial determinant of transparency. Establishing the institutions to collect, organize, and disseminate information is costly and remains a low priority for cash-strapped local governments. Secondly,… [c]ities whose economies are relatively dependent on a single industrial firm tend to resist implementing transparency requirements when compared to those dealing with a less concentrated industrial base.

We at IPE and NRDC firmly believe that environmental transparency is the foundation of strong environmental protection.  There is still much to do.  We need to find solutions to improving transparency.  The collaborative work by others has helped point the way toward answers (better funding, countering the excessive influence of local enterprise interests, etc.).  We need to better understand what effect transparency has on environmental quality in China.  We are looking forward to continuing work with Chinese cities and other stakeholders to find the most effective ways forward.

Related Links:

* In August of last year, Ma Jun, IPE’s founder, and I went on CCTV-9’s Dialogue to talk about the PITI evaluation. 

* NRDC released a fact sheet in November 2009 discussing the connection between PITI results and climate change. 

* PITI was featured in Friends of Nature’s annual Green Book on China’s environment.