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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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