Books: the awakening begins

As this year draws to a close, Liu Xianshu considers the Annual Report on Environmental Development of China (2010) and sees the seeds of hope growing out of the disasters of 2009

Annual Report on Environmental Development of China (2010)
Yang Dongping (editor)
Social Sciences Academic Press, 2010

As far as the environment is concerned, 2009 was a disastrous year for China, with various predictions of doom all seeming to come true.

In mid-September of last year
, lead-poisoning incidents were exposed in Fengxiang in Shaanxi province, Wufeng in Hunan and Shangkeng in Fujian, with more than 1,000 children affected. Years of local-government pursuit of GDP came to fruition, with innocent children suffering the most.

After these cases had been exposed, the Southern Weekend newspaper conducted an online survey. Pointing out that each location had been forced – because of a lack of economic development — to host polluting industry, the Guangzhou-based newspaper asked survey respondents if they thought it was possible to have both development and a healthy environment.

There were two answers from which to choose: “Yes, we cannot pollute first and clean up later,” chosen by 78.31% of those polled (12,275 votes), or “No, polluting first and cleaning up later is the proven route to development,” which received only 21.69% support (3,400 votes).

One user commented: “We know what should be done – but does the government?”

China’s government officials are perhaps the most self-confident in the world, its government perhaps the boldest and most powerful. They dare to say and do what officials and governments elsewhere do not. In a difficult economic climate, only the Chinese government dared talk of maintaining 8% growth – and actually beat its own goal.

But China’s environmental authorities have been unusually quiet. They no longer blow up “environmental storms”, seeming instead to have become a service provider for investment projects, offering fast-track approval to ensure that work can get started as soon as possible. At this point, we can see the true role of environmental protection in China. Development still trumps all else – most of all, it trumps the health of the people, and particularly the weak.

Addressing environmental pollution and degradation are part of a gradual process, while incoming investment brings immediate benefits. Under the Chinese system, officials – and particularly local ones – are impatient to make a name for themselves and win promotion by demonstrating economic successes to their superiors.

If the order comes down to maintain 8% growth, they will aim to beat it; otherwise they will not be seen to excel. So they use all available local resources to improve their record – and the sooner the better. The environmental green paper China Environmental Development Report 2010 provides many examples.

Since 2006, the Chinese environmental group Friends of Nature has coordinated NGOs in the production of environmental green papers — recording, examining and considering the state of China’s environment from the point of view of the public rather than the government.

The 2010 report presents the main environmental events of 2009, such as the debate over waste processing, protests against public-health problems arising from pollution, and the launch of a range of energy-hungry and polluting projects due, to an extent, to economic stimulus policies.

But the report is too short when compared to the depth of China’s environmental difficulties. This is probably so that it could be published easily, and because of a technical issue: as ordinary citizens, we lack the means to obtain information about our environment. Our right to know, like our environmental rights, is not ensured.

In May 2008, both the “Regulations on Open Government Information” and the “Measures on Open Environmental Information (Trial Implementation)” came into effect. This year the report included a survey of openness of environmental information in 113 cities complied by the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The survey found that, on average, that the cities had a Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI) assessment of just over 31 points (out of 100). A score of 60 is regarded as meeting Chinese legal standards; only four cities exceeded that level.

When lists of companies that had been punished for environmental breaches, and of public complaints that had been investigated, were requested, only 27 cities provided complete or partial data. Eighty-six provided nothing, contending that such information was not suitable for publication, that it involved commercial secrets, that publication required approval from a higher level of government, or that release of the information would affect development. Some officials ignored the request, repeatedly hanging up the telephone, while in other cities researchers found it impossible to even locate the correct department.

But regardless of how unused to such probing the government is, it is finally starting to change the way it behaves. The year 2009 also saw an environmental awakening among the people of China, with anti-waste incineration movements taking hold around the country. In this way, at least, it was not too terrible a year. It saw the start of hope.

This movement does not just represent public oversight of government; it also demonstrates the public’s ability to examine itself and educate itself on environmental issues. It is not other people who create the waste in the first place, but ourselves.

The Chinese people are aware of the issues surrounding the environment and development. The problem is that the government and its officials are not. Otherwise they would not play host to the polluting enterprises and leave so many children with lead poisoning. What can the public do when faced with a government and officials less aware than themselves?
They can only work to educate, influence and assist. The production of this report is one aspect of civil society attempting to influence and assist policy makers. It is also an opportunity to reflect and improve, to educate ourselves and maintain independence of thought through the collection and dissemination of information.

Sometimes the government cannot be relied upon, so we must rely upon ourselves. There can never be too many of these reports. They are all of irreplaceable value.

Liu Xianshu worked for 15 years as a journalist for
China Environmental News and China Youth Daily and is now an independent researcher and writer. His blog is available at https://blog.sina.com.cn/liuxianshu