Criticising China’s Central Government Environment Policy

Today, the SCMP carried an article about a quite remarkable environmental conference sponsored by SEPA (State Environmental Protection Administration). (SCMP 6/19/2006, “Public services sidelined by growth, say scholars”) Among the speakers were a number of high level officials, including “National People’s Congress vice-chairwoman Gu Xiulian , Sepa viceminister Wang Yuqing , Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference vice-chairman Zhou Tienong and Song Jian , chairman of the All-China Environment Federation, an NGO under Sepa.” All of them criticized the weak efforts of the central government’s to get environmental problems under control, compared to efforts to promote economic development and foreign investment. Serving out the strongest criticism, however, seemed to be two professors from the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPSL), professor Jiang Ping and professor Wang Canfa. Jiang Ping, according to SCMP, is a former president of CUPSL and Wang Canfa is the director of the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV) (Wang was recently featured prominently on the CBC documentary “China Rises” as an environmental crusader). (Wang has agreed to speak at a VLS conference on China and the Environment next March.)

While criticism of environmental degradation issues is heard all the time, I have seldomly heard it being directed so squarely at the central government. It’s quite courageous to speak out like this, but I also hope for the sake of both Jiang and Wang that this will not get them into trouble.

But there is also another issue that this raises – I wonder whether criticism of the central government’s environment policies is going to a new level. In my opinion, in the past, the central government has largely received a “pass” in criticism about its environmental policy and law enforcement. Mostly, people (or at least many of the environmental folks I have met) have accepted the argument that China’s serious environmental degradation is necessary to advance’s its economic development. Alternatively, folks have blamed the local governments for failing to implement central government policies. The article might be an indication of a change.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Jiang Ping , a former president of the China University of Political Science and Law, said the prolonged debate over the pace and direction of China’s reforms had highlighted the government’s failure to protect public interest. “The review of [China’s economic] reforms in recent years has reminded us that the insufficient supply of public goods has resulted in widespread dissatisfaction among the people and even mass [protests],” he told an environmental forum yesterday.

Professor Jiang said the government, which had been obsessed with investment and economic growth, should shoulder most of the blame for worsening pollution, and increasingly expensive education and health care – the main causes of the soaring number of street protests on the mainland.

“The change in roles [required by administrative reform] means the government must deal with the rising demand for public services rather than placing too much emphasis on how to attract foreign direct investment,” he said.

His views were supported by Ding Yuanzhu , a senior researcher from the National Development and Reform Commission, and Wang Canfa , an environmental expert at the China University of Political Science and Law.

Both Dr Ding and Professor Wang lashed out at the authorities’ monopoly on policy-making.

Dr Ding, from the commission’s Academy of Macroeconomic Research, said the lack of a democratic decision-making mechanism that involved all parties concerned – especially the public – should be addressed in the government-led administrative reform.

Professor Wang added that the government was wrongly using its role to oversee security and social equity to push for faster economic growth. Professor Jiang warned that rampant environmental accidents and disasters, and revelations about the country’s ecological degradation had seriously undermined the authorities’ credibility.

“While forced evictions are caused by the government’s pursuit of development, pollution – which has harmed public health – highlights the authorities’ lack of accomplishment and affects its credibility,” he said.

More than 300 government officials, business leaders, scholars and NGOs attended the forum organised by the State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa) yesterday.

The forum, which focused on building an environmentally friendly society, heard a range of stark warnings exposing the extent of pollution and harsh criticism of the country’s single-minded pursuit of economic growth.

China’s Environmental Expenditures for next 5 years

The Central government is planning to spend 1.3 trillion yuan on pollution control measures for the next 5 year plan (2006-2010. (SCMP 2/19/2006.) The announcement was made by Mao Rubai, director of the Environment and Resources Committee of the NPC. The statement was the first time this information has been made public. That comes out to 260 billion yuan per year, about 1.6 percent of GDP. It compares with 1.4 percent of GDP spending on pollution control measures in 2004.

The magnitude of the SEPA budget is designed to make-up for inadequate spending in the last 5-year plan and continued environmental deterioration.

A Swim in the Pearl River

On July 12, thousands of people will be swimming across the Pearl River which runs through Guangzhou in Guangdong province. (SCMP 6/12) While the event is supposed to show-case the improved pollution situation of the river, Guangdong environmental officials have advised against it because the river is still too polluted to swimming. The water quality is “rated at Grade 5, two levels down from the Grade 3 which would make it safe for swimming.” In fact, the water is so polluted that it is not even suitable for industrial uses. The most shocking thing about the swim is that most of them, according to the SCMP, over 5000 students, teachers, police, and employees of state-owned enterprises, will be forced to participate.

On an unrelated matter, but relevant to issues of regulatory matters protecting the public, it has recently come to light that industrial grade (instead of clinical grade) oxygen has been used for patient care in a Guangxi hospital. (SCMP 6/12, based on a CCTV report) The obvious problem with industrial grade oxygen is that it contains impurities that might be harmful to patients. I suppose these issues would be consistent with the many stories of contaminated food and medicines that are the result of a weak regulatory system that, like environmental laws, should otherwise protect the public.

State of China’s Environment

I have been off-line for the past few weeks for various reasons (exam grading, out-of-town, etc.). Back now.

There have been a some SEPA statements and a “White Paper” by the State Council over the past week. Deputy SEPA chief Zhu Guangyao said that pollution caused more than US$200 billion in environmental harm, constituting about 10% of China’s GDP. (Xinhua 6/5/2006) The State Council also issued a paper (“Environmental Proteciton in China (1996-2005)) that summaries the developments over the last 10 years and sets out the priorities for the future. There is an English translation available at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2006-06/05/content_4647221.htm.