Chinese Environmental Enforcement Rising: Increasingly Frank Government Statements on Environmental Risks and Damage

Recent weeks have seen a spate of announcements concerning environmental harms ranging from those stemming from the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project, to heavy metal pollution and increasingly vigorous enforcement actions by China’s Environmental Ministry.

China’s highest governing body, the State Council, issued a statement last week acknowledging the pollution and natural disaster problems associated with the Three Gorges Dam project and requiring government ministries to address these issues. The State Council called the hydropower project a success, and indeed central China has welcomed the power produced, but said that more needed to be done to address the pollution and “geological disasters.” Exactly what geological disasters the State Council was referring to is somewhat unclear. Various reports have focused on landslides, earthquake risk and water shortages downstream. This year water shortages are at the top of the public’s agenda, with the Yangtze River experiencing its worst drought in fifty years. As Beijing-based water expert Ma Jun explained in the Guardian, while the principal cause of the droughts is lack of rainfall, the change in water distribution caused by the dam (with water collected and used further upriver), also affects the downstream farmers.

At the same time the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has been very active halting a number of projects for failing to meet environmental regulations. On May 24 the Chinese media reported that MEP had halted work on two of the new high-speed rail lines, one for failing to receive an environmental permit and the second for failing to adhere to the terms of the environmental permit it had already obtained. In the latter case, the rail line’s route was adjusted without seeking a modification in the permit. While problems with the high-speed rail system have been in the news lately, especially since the ouster of the previous railways minister earlier this year, what is notable is that MEP is not leaving the issue to other parts of the government that are concerned about issues such as the railway’s debt level and safety, but is stepping in to ensure that environmental issues are also addressed. We saw a similar dynamic during the 2009 economic stimulus program when Minister of Environmental Protection Zhou Shengxian spoke out against “backsliding” as companies and local governments focused on economic goals.

In addition, MEP has begun to tackle one of the toughest impacts of China’s rapid industrialization, heavy metal pollution. There are an increasing number of reports of enforcement actions, including plant closures, to address lead and other heavy metal poisoning incidents. The issue is gaining increasing focus in the Chinese press, and much of it, such as this article in the Global Times that describes new actions, still is quite critical of efforts that do not yet go far enough to redress the harms many have experienced.

China continues to face a number of environmental challenges. What is heartening in these recent stories is the growing ability of the MEP to take action and confront industry and other parts of the government. MEP was only elevated to Ministry status four years ago, and gained enforcement powers a little more than a decade ago. It is showing signs of maturing as a player in Beijing policy, able to influence the behavior of economic actors.

photo credit: yuan2003 via a creative commons attribution non-commercial license