Environmental protection in China is currently enjoying a period of great success.
In January 2016, the government of Hebei province, next to Beijing, was subject to an inspection of its environmental practices. Since then, inspections have expanded to cover 31 provincial-level governments. And while in the past such inspections targeted businesses, now it is the failures, disorder and tardiness of local government officials that inspectors have in their sights.
In Tianjin city, the authorities were found to have forged documents on the treatment of water pollution and to be brazenly interfering with air quality monitoring in two city districts. Many localities in Shanxi province were found to be lax on pollution requirements, ignoring public complaints on environmental matters, and reluctant and slow at taking action – resulting in poorer environmental quality.
Inspectors have been painstakingly thorough. Audits of huge quantities of documentation, on-site checks and the solicitation of tens of thousands of public complaints have exposed numerous long-hidden issues. In one particularly shocking case, a team in Zhejiang province discovered a company illegally burying large numbers of diseased pig corpses.
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But while inspectors sweep the country, let’s not forget the challenges we face.
Inspections by large numbers of officials dispatched from central government can only ever be an extreme measure, not a regular occurrence.
The pressure of inspection and the threat to careers can mean that failing local governments descend into disorder and malpractice as they attempt to dupe inspectors. Mayors who were once spurred to action after being “called in for a chat” may see that everyone is now in the same boat and know that central government can’t punish them all. There are also concern that after these mass crackdowns problems will simply reappear.
This highlights the key to central oversight: we need to shift from accountability on a case-by-case basis, to proper accountability systems and better local government.
Look at the case of the diseased pig corpses improperly disposed of in Huzhou. The media reported that locals called a hotline to complain and a survey was carried out, but nothing came of it – the villagers were told soil and water quality were up to standard. The city authorities were busily denying there was any issue even up until August.
This exposes a huge systems failure.
The Institute for Public and Environmental Affair’s most recent Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI) figures for 120 cities show Huzhou ranking bottom in the south-east coastal region for transparency of information on public environmental complaints. This means that data which the law says should be public is kept safely hidden away. This lack of transparency prevents the public from exercising oversight and means that environmental authorities are unable to avoid local government interference.
Problems with our environmental management systems are not confined to any particular place or time. For example, the new Environmental Protection Law requires all local governments to publish lists of key polluters, while the new Atmospheric Pollution Prevention and Control Law requires listed polluters emitting atmospheric pollutants to instal automatic monitoring equipment and make monitoring data available in real time.
But the annual PITI report found that only 12% of businesses required to do so were complying, and that in many places key polluters weren’t even on the list. During inspections, there were cases of minor transgressions being punished, while major crimes were overlooked – again, this relates to failures in disclosing information.
There is no doubt that huge efforts have been made with impressive results. Environmental inspections, backed by central government authority, have brought hope that some closely-watched issues will be resolved. But these valuable and limited resources should be focused on the long term failings of local governments: What went wrong with the complaints mechanism in Huzhou? Why aren’t the rules in the atmospheric pollution law being implemented?
Only then can we be sure that when the inspectors next return home to Beijing, they will leave behind effective local environmental management and the long term rule of environmental law.