“Ministry of environment, we thank you”

Liu Jianqiang questions the recent “achievements” announced by China’s environment ministry

On July 9 the Ministry of Environmental Protection published a report entitled Environmental Protection in China: Trends and Response. Though China’s environment today is worse than it has ever been in history, the report opted to focus on six successes. But even these are dubious.

The first was the “forceful promotion of cuts in pollution.” Various indices were used to explain how pollution had been reduced and emissions cut – quantity of urban waste water treated, SO2 and chemical oxygen demand quantities, etc. But the figures do not seem to match up with worsening air, soil and water pollution, as well as increasing energy consumption. Industry insiders have differing views on how truthful claims such as “a 14.29% drop” are.

The second, the “comprehensive promotion of regional environmental impact assessments, and strict construction of project environmental impact assessments,” was even more puzzling. I would like to invite the minister to explain two related cases: firstly, the recent China National Petroleum Corp chemical project in Anning near Kunming met with public opposition. Experts found the environmental impact assessment report for the project was missing its public participation section, making it illegal – yet it had been approved by the MEP. Why does the ministry support such clearly illegal behaviour?

Environmental rights-defence and protest have been frequent over the last five to six years, giving rise to social disorder. Environmental resistance is now one of the main causes of social unrest in China. If the MEP had over the last five years implemented existing regulations on openness of environmental information and public participation, the people today would be able to find out about these projects and even participate in making decisions – and some of these social conflicts could perhaps be avoided.

Another case that the minister needs to explain is why the environmental impact assessment provided by the operator of a Qinhuangdao incinerator project contained signatures of members of the public who had supposedly “participated”. These were found to include fugitive criminals and the long-deceased. The report had already been approved by the environmental authorities. Environmentalists called for the producers of the report to have their license to carry out EIAs revoked, but the MEP did not respond. Is this a “strict environmental impact assessment”?

The reality is that for years the MEP’s EIA regime has been lax, with many large polluting projects going ahead unopposed.

The third claimed achievement was “resolving prominent environmental issues affecting the people’s lives.” But what we actually see is the MEP’s inaction on just those issues – air, water and soil pollution.

On air pollution, the MEP first refused to monitor PM2.5 levels and to publish urban air quality measures. It only produced a timetable for doing so when prompted by the top leadership.

The MEP accused the US embassy of interfering in China’s internal affairs by publishing PM2.5 levels. Since the Chinese New Year the public have become more concerned about groundwater pollution, but the MEP has, as usual, kept silent. When a lawyer requested the release of soil pollution data, the MEP refused, claiming it was a “state secret.”

The fourth alleged success was “better prevention and clean-up of pollution”. The Minister referred to such plans, but what we have actually seen is lead pollution in Wei County, Gansu, in 2006; algae tides on Lake Taihu in 2007; the Zijin Mining pollution case of 2010; the ConocoPhillips oil leak of 2011; the 2012 cadmium pollution in Guangxi; the smog in Beijing; the 2013  aniline leak in Shanxi; groundwater pollution in Shandong; pigs in the river in Shanghai; and the recent pollution of the He River.

The fifth was “stronger ecological protection and rural environmental protection.” There are now over 400 cancer villages – how exactly has rural environmental protection been strengthened?

I do not believe the MEP bears sole responsibility for China’s environmental degradation, but the State Council has assigned it the duty of coordinating, directing and supervising environmental protection work nationwide. The MEP also has strong law enforcement powers. But the ministry is not just failing to act – it is dressing its failings up as successes.

But the sixth and final of the MEP’s successes was actually genuine: “significantly increased environmental awareness among society as a whole.” Yes, China’s environment is rubbish, and even the basics of air, water, soil and food safety cannot be guaranteed. Every day we face a degrading environment and the environmental authorities fail to do their job – so of course the public are more environmentally aware. So for this, we must thank the MEP.