Public participation and legal reform key to creating ecological civilisation

Legal and institutional change is needed if China is going to tackle its tough environmental problems

China is determined to save its environment; at least that is the message the top leadership sent after the country’s most important policymaking session. President Xi Jinping pledged to draw an ‘ecological red line’ to limit the exploitation of natural resources during the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee. In this context, ‘red lines’ refer to setting quotas for how much industrial development (if any) each region should be allowed to undergo. State media hailed Xi’s proposals, saying it could transform a heavily polluted country into one with a much more sustainable development. However, challenges inherent in the party and political system threaten to derail the country’s environmental reforms. 

Experts say Xi’s “ecological red line,” which involves more aggressive and concrete measures than previous proposals, signals that environmental issues now rank higher on the agenda. To steer local officials away from the pursuit of economic growth at any cost, Beijing said it would try to audit local natural resources to uncover serious environmental damage and hold cadres accountable for their ecosystem management. In a Politburo meeting in May, Xi said officials should “firmly” hold the ecological red line and any step beyond the limit would be subject to punishment.

Local accountability

Yet Xi’s new policies face an old challenge— the lack of effective coordination between the central government and local leadership. For local officials, especially those overseeing less developed areas, the incentive to exploit natural resources remains strong. As a Chinese saying goes, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away. The country’s top supervising body, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, lacks teeth to regulate local cadres as a number of crucial environmental responsibilities are spread across many departments such as the State Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Water Resources and the National Development and Reform Commission.

“The management of anything in China is still not integrated between ministries and the central and the local governments,” says R. Edward Grumbine, a senior international scientist at the Kunming Institute of Botany. “They have a 30-year development model that no longer works well and it will take time to change.” 

Besides improving China’s administration system, Xi’s environmental policies would also benefit from further judicial reform and stronger institutional capacities. “The [natural resources] accounting system can only be robust if more fundamental issues like corruption, relationships between state-owned enterprises and government agencies, etc. are tackled,” says Scott Moore, who studies China’s environmental policy at Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.

These fundamental issues are part of the institutional structure supporting environmental reforms. As China seeks to restructure its economy and manage urbanisation, the country must develop stronger institutions that are powerful enough to solve the tough environmental challenges likely to emerge during the process. 

“Without a massive effort to strengthen the country’s basic institutions, a push towards greater marketisation is likely to undermine, rather than enhance, sustainable development, particularly with respect to China’s environment,” Moore wrote in a recent op-ed in the South China Morning Post. 

The leadership has made hopeful steps towards judicial reform. The Third Plenum communiqué promised a more independent and fair judicial system. It has also called for “relying on the law to rule the country”. In China, courts and environmental regulators are tightly held by local governments, which often have very close ties to polluting industries. Environmental lawsuits are frequently botched at the very beginning. Benjamin Van Rooij, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the “only long-term solution” would be to establish provincial or central level courts, environmental regulators and police that are powerful enough to work at the local levels.

The role of public participation

One way to protect the environment is to create more incentives for cadres to safequard ecosystems. China has been linking environmental protection to the promotion of cadres for more than five years. The Plenum resolution said poorer and ecologically fragile areas will no longer be required to meet their growth targets. However, past policies have largely failed to improve the degrading environment. A lot of companies falsely report environmental statistics despite Beijing’s repeated efforts to perfect its regulatory arsenal.

Lin Yanmei, associate director of the U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law at the Vermont law school, said the leadership should reconsider the environmental indicators measuring cadres’ performance. Lin argued that what matters is not just how many trees are planted or how many tonnes of pollutants are reduced, but also the condition of the environment in the official’s jurisdiction.

One measurement of this is biodiversity: the MEP, the municipal government of Chongqing and the Appraisal Center for Environmental Engineering are trying to develop and implement biodiversity indicators. “They want to have more objective standards,” Lin says. “But this is just as difficult as including green GDP in the assessment system.” 

As the leadership struggles to find good ways to balance economic growth and environmental protection, the Chinese public has inreasingly taken on the role of an environmental watchdog. Angry over the worsening environment, which is now symbolised by the thick grey smog that often shrouds major cities, the public has resorted to protests and online campaigns. They also report polluters to the authorities via Weibo. NGOs are also engaging the public while  helping local officials to improve their environmental governance.  

A more engaged public adds extra pressure for the central government to take action. Pollution is now the main cause of social unrest in China. Van Rooij says leaders should have the courage to open up more to citizens and NGOs and develop a communication platform. Citizen input has already helped to stop some polluters; perhaps it will play a bigger role as the leadership pledges once again to save the environment.