One year ago, I was hired to lead an EU-funded project under China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection that promotes disclosure of environmental information, public participation and access to justice. At the time, the initiative seemed like a hard sell.
Contrary to my initial expectations, we are now seeing a lot of momentum. The public started taking a strong interest in the beginning of 2013, when real-time data showing off-the-chart smog in Beijing and other cities became accessible for the first time. By 2014, the government responded with a string of new and ambitious legislation, laying a framework for public involvement in environmental governance.
The EU-China Environmental Governance Programme supported the drafting of the legislation by bringing in international experts, such as environmental regulators, judges, and NGO leaders. In September 2014, we held a seminar with relevant senior officials to develop a framework for environmental public interest litigation.
The Chinese government wanted to learn from the experience of developed countries in having civil society bring environmental court cases, and we had very open and in-depth discussions. As one NGO leader jokingly put it: “The Chinese top judges are so friendly! In other countries I always have to sue someone before I get to meet them.”
But good legislation is one thing – whether or not it’s enforced is another matter. The Chinese government’s genuine willingness to let the public become involved has been tested by the recent documentary ‘Under the Dome’, which went viral on social media platforms.
Despite the film’s open criticism of the government’s efforts, and the watchful eye of China’s powerful censors, the film – for a while at least – made it onto social media portals, and Chen Jining, the newly appointed Minister of Environment, was quick to praise the documentary for inspiring public interest.
By Chinese standards, the government response has been remarkably ‘laissez-faire’, which sends a signal to media and civil society – it’s OK to become involved in the fight against pollution, by exposing polluters and expressing opinions on decisions which affect the environment.
What surprised me most is the huge number of people who watched the documentary and forwarded it to their friends. Some estimates suggest that 300 million times in the first few days following its release.
If you consider every time the video is forwarded as a ‘vote’, the documentary is an unprecedented show of public support, giving the government a powerful mandate.
And the timing of the documentary’s release was impeccable: Chen had just been appointed, China’s annual parliamentary assembly was taking place in the following week, and legal and regulatory institutions are being reshaped to strengthen enforcement and accountability.
However, it is clear that not everyone is so happy about all this public attention on the smog. ‘Under the Dome’ was eventually removed from the major video streaming sites. Also, I spoke live on a Chinese radio show to comment on ‘Under the Dome’, but the recording of it was taken offline a day later.
On March 15, China Daily ran an article about premier Li Keqiang responding to journalists about ‘Under the Dome’, emphasising that the environmental law is the ultimate weapon to deal with the pollution.
The photo that ran with the article was a screenshot of ‘Under the Dome’. It appears that the government has finalised its response to the documentary, and state media are again allowed to mention the film. As the premier’s response demonstrates, the central government does not take into question whether or not the public should be involved in environmental protection – that has been set in stone in the new ‘Environmental Protection Law’.
The public’s new role in environmental governance will put pressure to act on decision-makers at all levels – local and national, in government and in industry. This will translate into more ambitious legislation and intensified law enforcement. Companies operating in China should prepare for a shift in culture.
Not only will environmental regulators become more confident, poor practices are more likely to be exposed by current or former employees, media, and civil society. As of January 2015, NGOs can take cases to environmental courts, and judicial reforms currently underway are increasing the level of independence of those courts. Polluters and those officials protecting them would do well to clean up their act before others force them to.