The Missing Teeth Of China's New Environmental Law

Two full decades after its previous version was voted in, the country's newly amended environmental protection was cited for its toughness. But the challenge is in the execution.

A man walks in a fog-shrouded city in northeast China's Jilin Province, in February 2014.
A man walks in a fog-shrouded city in northeast China's Jilin Province, in February 2014.
Qi Yue

BEIJING — It took lawmakers more than 20 years of twists and turns to amend it. Cited by some as "the world's harshest environmental law," China's new Environmental Protection Law was recently published by the government, and will take effect in less than a year, on January 1, 2015.

Both lawmakers and the public are placing high hopes that this new text can truly push China to urgently face its environmental challenges. Pollution in the country is no longer anecdotal — it has become a full-blown emergency. Daily smog has become the norm for many urban residents. Only 40% of cities at and above prefectural level met with national air quality standards in 2012.

Even more serious is the threat of water pollution. Some 280 million people in the country are drinking unsafe water, data from the Environmental Protection Ministry's first nationwide water survey shows. In the North China Plain region, there is almost no first-class, shallow groundwater.

The causality between water quality in the Hai River basin and gastrointestinal cancer deaths has been proven. And for the first time, the Chinese Center for Disease Control announced that the high incidence of cancer was directly linked to water pollution.

China's soil is also ill. The quality of arable land is particularly worrying. According to regional data, almost 20% of arable ground goes over the pollution threshold. The scary "cadmium rice" has often made it to the news these past several years.

Making sure the law is enforced

These days, the Chinese government's view on environmental governance is to "pay the old debts while not taking on any news debts." One of the means to ensure that is to give the amended environmental protection law "teeth." As China"s Environmental Protection Vice-Minister Pan Yue said, "a good law introduction is only half the work. The key lies in the second half — enforcing the law."

The new law sets an "ecological protection red line," a boundary that no one can cross in the economic development process. Yet will local governments actually hold to these requirements, under overwhelming GDP performance demands?

This also requires that officials who don't do their jobs properly resign from their positions. A few of them were forced to resign over the past few years — they all managed to come back.

The amended law also stipulates that nonprofit organizations will be able to file public interest lawsuits against polluting companies. Public contributions in pollution control will also be encouraged.

Yet recent mass incidents spurred by environmental concerns in China were precisely caused by the fact that authorities did not respect the public right to know.

Time for action

Of course, we can't expect this new text to change everything in a day. Many external factors are essential in ensuring a real enforcement of the law. Real anxiety about the grim environmental situation of the country within society — including among officials — will be key. A change in the assessment of local authorities' pollution control performances will also be required, along with more responsibility given to environmental protection departments.

That doesn't mean we should wait to act until all these conditions are met. A full enforcement of the law can also help improving these external factors. Only when they show their will to crack down on violators will China's environmental authorities be truly able to celebrate their seriousness.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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