from Asia Unbound

Poison Air, Dead Pigs, and Cancer Rice: The Reform China Really Needs

March 12, 2013

Cleaning workers retrieve the carcasses of pigs from a branch of Huangpu River in Shanghai on March 10, 2013.
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Energy and Environment


The bad news doesn’t stop coming. First, Beijing residents learned that breathing their air on a daily basis was akin to living in a smoking lounge. Then Guangdong residents learned that Hunan rice sold in their province in 2009 was contaminated with cadmium, which is carcinogenic and can cause severe pain in joints and the spine. And just this past weekend, Shanghai residents watched more than three thousand diseased pigs float down part of the city’s Huangpu River.

The good news is that the Chinese people finally know what they are up against. The bad news is that addressing these problems requires not only the technical fixes that are typically proposed but also the proper policy environment for the technical fixes to work. These problems are emblematic of a systemic challenge, and nothing short of an overhaul in how the environmental protection is managed from top to bottom will suffice. Here are a few things that the Chinese people appear to be seeking.

1)      Transparency. While far from perfect, the ability of the Chinese people to gain access to environmental information is at an all-time high thanks to the Internet. That doesn’t mean that the government provides the information willingly. The Beijing government, for example, had no intention of offering up the air quality statistics they now post regularly; it was a combination of U.S. Embassies and Consulates tweeting some of the information and the Chinese public demanding more that forced the government to do the right thing. Similarly, the Guangdong government has yet to admit to a problem with its rice; only the dogged determination of Chinese journalists keeps the truth coming. (And Beijing still refuses to release specific data from its most recent soil survey, despite a legal appeal by Chinese environmental lawyer Dong Zhengwei.) While the Shanghai government can’t deny the existence of the pigs; they are saying that the tap water is safe. Of course, one Chinese lawyer took to the Internet to ask the Shanghai authorities to drink the “meat soup” to verify the claim. Sooner or later, the Chinese leadership will realize that transparency will do far more to earn it the credibility that it desires than any campaign to strengthen Communist Party values.

2)      Rule of Law. Wang Canfa, one of China’s most renowned environmental lawyers and activists, stopped by to visit in early March and he laid out for me some of what is happening in this arena and what more needs to be done. Putting aside separating the Party from the judicial system, which would be the grand-daddy of all legal reform, at the top of Wang’s wish list is increasing the range of people who can bring environmental lawsuits through the court system. As it stands, China now has one hundred specialized environmental courts, an astonishing achievement. Unfortunately, as Wang commented, there aren’t enough cases. It is too difficult to gather evidence, and individuals can’t bring cases to court; only organizations formally registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs have that right. Wang could name just three such organizations. Still, Wang remains optimistic. More and more environmental lawyers and judges are being trained—some are even being funded by environmentally-concerned businesspeople—and he is excited about the collaboration among journalists, NGOs, and lawyers that is forcing change through the system.

3)      Official Accountability. One of the great weaknesses of environmental protection in China is the gap between what Beijing says and what actually happens at the local level. Official accountability on the environment arises in two manners most directly: “before-the-fact” and “after-the-fact.” Beijing has attempted to inspire “before-the-fact” accountability through its environmental responsibility system, which is supposed to link the environmental performance of Chinese officials with their prospects for promotion. However, a recently published study, involving professors from China, Singapore, and Canada, indicates that there is no correlation between how much officials spend on the environment and their chances for promotion; rather—and rather unsurprisingly—promotions correlate directly with investment in transportation infrastructure (which correlates nicely with both GDP growth and land prices). If Beijing really did promote officials on the basis of their environmental record, it could be transformative for the environment and for the Party. Beijing has had some better luck with “after-the-fact” accountability. In recent years, any major pollution disaster is likely to be followed by the dismissal or even imprisonment of a few local officials on grounds of mismanagement or corruption. Still, Xie Zhenhua, who was forced to resign in 2005 as head of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration in the wake of a massive chemical spill on the Songhua River and the subsequent cover-up, now sits as vice chairman of the far more powerful National Development and Reform Commission.

There are many more systemic changes needed: greater ease in registering non-governmental organizations, greater investment in environmental protection, and more human capital devoted to environmental management, chief among them. The fundamentals, however, rest in the nature of the governance system. The current leadership has raised the need for officials to be more transparent, to be more accountable, and to institute the rule of law. What this means remains to be seen. Over the next six to twelve months, however, the Chinese people will learn whether their understanding of the need for change and that of Chinese leadership is one and the same.