How transparent are China’s cities?

Back in January, we reported the findings of a Sino-US report on environmental transparency in China’s cities. The second Pollution Information Transparency Index – compiled by Beijing’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – showed that small advances had been made in the year 2009 to 2010, but that data disclosure was still below acceptable levels.

Now, an English version of the report has been released, so non-Chinese speakers who want to delve into the detailed findings, which cover 113 cities across the country, can do so. (Download the English version here and the original Chinese version here).

It is worth taking a close look at the study, not least for the interesting geographical patterns it reveals. The compilers surveyed the cities’ performance in eight areas, including their records of violations of pollution laws, environmental complaints and environmental impact assessments, and awarded each marks out of 100. The average score was 36 points (compared to a “pass mark” of 60) – but the results were far from even. As chinadialogue’s Meng Si wrote in January:

“The average score for 2009-2010 is five points higher than the previous year, demonstrating an overall advance. But the progress is not evenly distributed, and growing divergence between different geographical areas is visible thanks to an increased lead for cities on the southern and eastern coasts. As the report explains, when the average score is looked at by province, ‘Shanghai, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong are in the lead, while those in central and western China – Guizhou, Inner Mongolia, Jiangxi, Jilin and Gansu – are at the bottom.’”

The 10 cities to show the biggest improvement over the year and the 10 with the biggest decline are also highlighted.

The report looks at the provision of data on pollution within these cities rather than actual pollution levels. But, as IPE director Ma Jun has frequently said on the pages of chinadialogue, tackling China’s environmental problems requires citizen engagement – which in turn requires transparency. Speaking at a chinadialogue event in the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday, Ma reiterated this position in clear terms: “Without access to information, we can’t have any meaningful public participation,” he said.