Failure to engage

As the Year of the Tiger draws to an end, Meng Si reviews its key environmental events and awards China poor marks for public participation.

On the last day of December, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection rejected a request from non-profit group Chongqing Green Volunteers for a re-examination of the Zijin Mining toxic spill that poisoned a river south-eastern China in July. A week before that, some 50,000 online votes opposing construction of a waste incinerator in Dongguan, Guangdong province, mysteriously “disappeared” from the website they were filed on. And a fortnight before that, 40 fish farmers ruined by the oil spill in the north-eastern port city of Dalian made their second trip to Beijing to petition for compensation.

Looking back at China’s key environmental events of the past year – be it sweeping emissions-reduction and energy-saving moves by government or rapid developments in the domestic clean-energy sector; the Zijin Mining pollution incident or the Dalian oil leak; or the increasingly fierce debate over incinerators and genetically modified rice – one thing is clear: the public has been consistently left out in the cold. The Chinese people are still unable to participate in the making of public policy.

In July, a waste-impoundment facility at a Zijin Mining copper plant in Fujian province leaked about 9,100 cubic metres of acidic water into the Ting River, killing thousands of tonnes of fish. Just two months earlier, in May, the Ministry of Environmental Protection had described Zijin as a company that was failing to resolve serious environmental issues within given time limits, and which represented a significant environmental risk.

In the same month as the Zijin disaster, an oil pipeline exploded at Dalian’s port, sending tens of thousands of tonnes of crude oil into the surrounding ocean. Back in 2006, the State Environmental Protection Agency (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection) had flagged up problems with the environmental report on a project to relocate the 300,000-tonne oil terminal – problems with environmental-risk evaluation, risk-prevention measures and emergency-response plans.

Just half a year on, the Dalian spill seems, officially, to have been all but forgotten, while the public is still awaiting the publication of an environmental-impact assessment. Meanwhile, having covered up its own disaster for nine days, Zijin Mining – one of “China’s Most Honest Enterprises 2009” – caused a further two cases of pollution in July and September and was accused of using hush money and physical intimidation to block investigative reports. The media also reported on close links between the firm and the county government of Shanghang, the site of the polluting copper plant.

Reviewing these events, it is clear that there has been a breakdown in supervision, and that the finger can be pointed at a series of problems: failures of management, a lack of standard procedures, negligence, institutional loopholes and even links between money and power. But how could an “honest enterprise” dare to cover up a major pollution leak? Why would a state-owned oil firm that wrecked a community’s livelihood not only fail to apologise publicly but actually congratulate itself on its response? Why is public concern failing to speed up that long-awaited environmental-impact assessment?

It is not that the public has been silent – far from it: Chongqing Green Volunteers requested that the Ministry of Environmental Protection deal with Zijin through the courts, rather than by administrative sanction, but the application was not dealt with as it was not from an interested party. Environmentalist Feng Yongfeng requested that the Chinese Enterprise Confederation & China Enterprise Directors Association remove Zijin’s “Honest Enterprise” title, but received no response. Environmental NGOs Friends of Nature, Green Earth Volunteers and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs published an open letter to both the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges regarding Zijin’s deliberate holding back of information on the leak. They have not yet received an adequate answer. 

In the wake of the Dalian oil leak, both foreign and domestic environmental groups have visited the scene to investigate and observe developments. They have seen that the system for assessing the damage and paying compensation is incredibly slow and cumbersome; the mechanisms and regulations are crude, and there is no law to rely on. But, faced with official bureaucracy, there is nothing the people can do, except shrug and hope that the officials will speak up for them.

The year’s success story has been hitting energy-saving and emissions-reduction measures taken under the 11th Five-Year Plan. In May, premier Wen Jiabao vowed that “no matter what the difficulties, our undertaking will not change, our determination will not waver and our efforts will not falter.” And when central government makes up its mind, local government takes action: the people sat and watched as government bodies rushed around closing down energy-intensive firms and even cutting power to hospitals and public infrastructure – before realising such actions affected them as well. How much space is there for a public role in deciding the nature and policies of this energy revolution, which is nationwide and affects all aspects of life and work?

In recent years, we have seen: a public hearing on a project to seal the lakebed at Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, a protest march against a paraxylene (PX) plant in Xiamen and pressure from dam opponents forcing construction to a halt on the Nu River. In comparison, the space for public participation seems to have shrunk in the past 12 months. We have seen powerful groups fight their own battles, but the public has been left on the sidelines. Regardless of how the media, the internet and public opinion turn the spotlight on those who cause or can solve problems, civil society and individuals are still looking for ways to participate, and there is little sign of this sector having any effect.

The authorities cannot solve all of China’s environmental problems, nor can we trust corporations to be socially responsible all the time. The key is still for the government to change its attitude and give the public rights to effective participation, so that the people’s voice and the pressure it brings can be harnessed.

The Gulf of Mexico oil leak was caused by corporations putting profit before safety and by weak government supervision. But once the accident occurred, nobody dared to respond slowly. Within two months BP had committed to a US$20 billion [132 billion yuan] compensation fund and the first payment of US$3 billion was made within four months. The chair of the BP board, head bowed, made a solemn apology to the victims. And both civil society and government quickly investigated and evaluated the disaster, with the authorities setting up a website dedicated to publication of detailed reports, relief plans and relevant contact details.

As the provider of public services, the government cannot simply berate firms that cause accidents and provide support when natural disasters occur. There is no perfect solution, either at a moral or institutional level. But when the public is powerful enough to be a player in the game, society is more likely to develop in a direction that allows protection of both the environment and the public interest. Burdened by frequent environmental problems and the high costs of supervision, the authorities should allow the public to participate in the environmental-protection movement and thus promote multi-dimensional environmental solutions.

Of course, members of the public cannot simply sit and wait for power to come to them. And this is where we have seen signs of encouragement in the Year of the Tiger. As discussed here, NGOs have used open letters, complaints and action to continue to try to make their voices heard; and the media has continued to investigate and report, despite difficulties and obstacles.

Some experts believe that the unsustainable development of the past means that China is facing a decade of frequent pollution incidents. The challenge for the government is not just to deal with those incidents, but to understand the need for, and to move towards, a period of organised and widespread public oversight.


Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage image from Greenpeace shows an NGO worker in Dalian, after the spill.