New top-level environmental body for China

Xi Jinping announces new bureaus to protect natural resources at Party Congress, reports Liu Qin
<p>(Image:&nbsp;Philip Roeland)</p>

(Image: Philip Roeland)

Deng Xiaoping is remembered as the architect of China’s market reform era and “opening up”. Emerging from the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress, it looks as if Xi Jinping intends to be remembered as the architect of China’s “ecological civilisation” – the Party’s long term vision of a sustainable China.

On October 19, Xi gave a speech lasting three and a half hours to the Congress in which he said that building an ecological civilisation is necessary for the continued development of the Chinese people.

“The damage that humanity does to nature will ultimately harm humanity itself – this is an unavoidable rule,” said President Xi.

Such strength of language is rarely seen at these high-level events and demonstrates the importance of ecological civilisation in Xi’s plans to build a “beautiful China.”

It accompanied a landmark announcement that China will set up a new body to take ownership of China’s “natural resource assets” and oversee governmental bodies with responsibility for managing the country’s “natural environment.”

This has been interpreted as a move by central government to take powers from local officials over land usage, including control of mineral resources, waterways, forests, mountains, grasslands, deserts, oceans, and wetlands.

New body needed?

This is not the first time the idea of a top-level body to manage natural resources has been put forward at the central Party level; the overall plan for ecological civilisation reforms, published in September 2015, also proposed one.

A new overarching body would help address the internal, cross-ministerial conflict that has undermined China’s environmental governance, arising from a complex structure of bureaus that sometimes compete and clash over resource management. This can result in individual bodies issuing regulations that meet their own needs, but that cause wider confusion, or lack broader consideration of other bodies’ concerns.

Yang Weimin, head of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs, involved in in the formulation of China’s environmental strategy told Chinese news site in an interview in September that environmental sector reforms had lagged behind other reforms. One reason for this is the lack of an overarching plan – but China’s severe environmental issues mean that one is urgently needed.

Conflicts of interest

One thorny issue to arise from the announcement is land rights. Currently, local governments “execute the ownership” of state land (rather than owning it outright), and have been profiting from taking de facto ownership of collective rural land, turning it into state land, and leasing it to developers.

With Beijing centralising the control of land currently managed by local governments, including that within national park boundaries, local governments will be unable to continue profiting from leasing this land.

This is already happening in the 10 trials of China’s new national park system. The central government is taking control of all park land, which together accounts for 2% of China’s total land area.

However, there is local concern that assets will be transferred to central government with no direct compensation or benefit, which will fuel tensions between central government and local officials. Although the proposal covers improving environmental compensation systems, it is not yet clear who will benefit.

Part of the new environmental body’s function is to ensure these upcoming changes of ownership go smoothly.

Ownership and management

A Xinhua article at the end of December 2016 noted that the Central Committee decided to reorganise management of natural assets nationwide. At a meeting of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms a proposal for trials to improve the management of natural assets was put forward. This would see a clear distinction between ownership and management.

This means that existing bodies responsible for the management of natural assets, such as the forestry or marine bureaus, will see duties transferred to the new body.

Responsibility for the protection of these assets will be handed to a separate independent department.

The reforms also include the national registration of natural assets. Zhang Jianlong, head of the State Forestry Administration, indicated that in 2018 ownership of 80% of assets will be registered.

However, as yet there is little clarity on what these new asset management and oversight bodies will look like. According to a 2015 report on reform of environmental management systems from the Sustainable Development Strategy Research Group at the Chinese Academy of Science, there was no consensus within the Central Committee on how much authority the bodies will have.

What is sure in the wake of the Congress is that responsibilities will change, although these changes may not be to the liking of all.