China needs political reform to solve its environmental problems

China needs openness of information and public participation to tackle its environmental problems says Li Dun, executive director of the Public Policy Institute at Tsinghua University
chinadialogue (CD): The final text from the Third Plenum gave the environment the same importance as the economy and the political system. What does this mean for the environment?
Li Dun (Li): The concept of the “ecological civilisation” was proposed as early as the 17th Party Congress, in 2007. But in China environmental pollution, ecosystem damage and climate change have their own particular causes besides the usual ones.
First, the separate administration of urban and rural areas means that much urban pollution is shifted to rural locations; where the rural residents themselves are also creating pollution and nobody takes responsibility for water and soil pollution. Rural pollution ultimately harms everyone through water and the food chain
Second, citizens are unable to protect the land and property they use or own from pollution. If the government agrees, businesses can acquire those land use rights; and if local government allows or gives tacit consent businesses can pollute. 
Third, the system does not ensure that appeals for help can be made.
Fourth, the chances of citizen groups forming to protest pollution are small.
Fifth, the law is ineffective and courts rarely hear pollution cases. There is no constitutional court and no investigations of breaches of the constitution. 
Six, officials with government environmental protection bodies struggle to enforce the law in the face of strong pressures. 
So in economic terms, China’s pollution is a structural problem. In political terms, it is due to the system. In terms of our mode of growth, it is due to the dominance of the state (with a strong government, weak markets, and no society), where the state (the Party) monopolises environmental protection and there are no guaranteed methods for social or public groups to participate. 
CD: The final text also calls for a nationwide system to manage natural resources and assets on behalf of the people. What do you think about this?
Li: China’s Property Law, which was not passed easily, is ambiguous on some basic matters. “Rights”, based on ownership rights, are the basis of modern law and the market economy, and the foundation of ownership rights is the system for real estate. A “natural resources and assets rights system” must connect with those real estate rights. But a system for natural resources and assets must remain unfixed until real estate rights are reformed and the negative impact of the planned economy era removed. It will be unable to function as part of an already integrated world market, and it may even cause harm.

Many overseas and multinational companies have polluted and damaged the environment in China, which they wouldn’t dare to do, which they couldn’t do, elsewhere. That’s proof. 

CD: What about the system of lifetime responsibility for environmental damage? How feasible is this in China?
Li: There’s one method which could solve many of China’s problems: openness of information, public participation and holding officials to account. Currently we can’t yet hold officials to account, so how can we talk about doing so on a ‘lifetime’ basis? It’s all very well to talk about it, but the ruling party has to actually do it. 
CD: The final text specifies the need to “Establish and perfect an environmental protection and management system for the strict supervision of all emission of pollutants, to independently carry out environmental supervision and administrative enforcement”.

How should we understand the words “all” and “independent”?

Li: If we look at “all”, first, this means a supervision system which treats all polluters equally – equal monitoring, equal publication of data, equal chances for victims of pollution to sue and be compensated, equal rights to protest pollution, equal use of sanctions such as business closures. Everyone is equal in front of the law, and there should be no unequal treatment for any reason.

Second, all pollutants that damage health or the environment should be covered, regardless of whether or not they are currently on monitoring lists. New pollutants should be dealt with as they are identified, not ignored and allowed to cause damage as they are not on the list. Monitoring standards should be produced as quickly as possible and the pollutant added to the list. 

As for “independent”, it can’t be done. China’s national circumstances are that the ruling party “assumes all responsibility” (as in the Communiqué of the Third Plenum), so there can be no independence.