Weathering the storm

China still averages one environmental accident every two days, despite a number of high-profile crackdowns on polluters. A stronger movement is needed to take on a dangerous alliance of money and power, writes Tang Hao.

China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has launched three major crackdowns known as “environmental storms” in the past three years. The first one, in the early part of 2005 halted 30 unapproved construction projects, and 56 projects were not approved in 2006. Regional permit restrictions were used to block four major energy projects this year; 82 other projects have also been criticised for falling foul of the rules on environmental impact assessments. But despite the continued crackdowns, China has faced more and more environmental problems. Over the same period, the number of environmental disasters has increased, with one pollution incident occurring every two days on average. Public complaints about environmental concerns have increased 30% and central leadership statements on the subject have increased 52%. Moreover, pollution emissions continued to rise in 2006. SEPA’s high hopes for the success of the environmental storms have not been realised. 

How can this be the case, with rising concerns from the public and the media, not to mention SEPA’s repeated statements? Why is it so hard to put effective measures in place – and make local governments and businesses fall into line? Understanding the answers to these questions requires taking a broader view, which reveals the rise of an anti-environmental interest group – of which local governments are only one part – who want to take an active role in environmental decision-making. And at the same time, this wider view exposes a void at the heart of China’s environmental movement.

A clash of interests

Pan Yue, SEPA’s deputy director, believes that the government must take ultimate responsibility for the country’s environmental crisis. But he also agrees that the environmental protection movement suffers from an over-reliance on government. Only the government can enforce environmental impact assessments, supervise projects and punish polluters. But for local governments, economic growth is of overriding importance, and the environment is often sacrificed as a result. SEPA figures show that environmental impact assessments are carried out for only 40% of city-level projects, and at the county-level this dwindles sharply to 20%. Asking local governments, who profit from such projects, to take environmental concerns into account in effect requires them to act against their own interests.

Anti-environmental interests are also represented by business. Inadequate legal enforcement in energy-saving and environmental protection allows domestic firms to profit from polluting their environment, while transnational companies relocate their waste and polluting industries to China. Local media, beholden to the rich and powerful, fail to speak out. Special interest groups have thus formed an unspoken alliance against the environment.

When compared with their powerful, united opponents, China’s environmental groups seem weak and diffuse. Social forces: international and domestic non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil-society organisations, the media and the public, have been slow to develop. Take environmental NGOs as an example: regulations require them to have a “sponsoring organisation” before they can register, weakening the NGO sector. If Friends of Nature’s sponsor were to withdraw its support, for example, the organisation’s legality – and its very existence – would come under threat. The growth of environmental NGOs is also held back by internal problems that include a lack of skilled personnel, poor standards of accounting and low credibility in the eyes of the public. The limitations of the NGO sector, combined with government ineffectiveness in environmental protection, hinder the progress of China’s environmental movement. At the end of last year there were around 3,000 environmental organisations in the country, but we need far more.

Environmental protection requires society’s concern and participation. But contemporary China has been unable to rise to this challenge, and the storms whipped up by government have had little effect at a grassroots level. Once the storm has passed, everything returns to normal – or even gets worse.

Civil society

The only way to counteract the hold of the anti-environmental lobby is to help environmentally-aware citizens work together and turn public opinion into organised and sustained pressure. Environmental groups, the media, local government and environmental authorities should all be able to compete for influence. The experience of countries that have highly-developed interest groups, such as the US, demonstrates that organisations working for the public good are the best way to rein in the influence of special interest groups.

The crisis facing China’s environmental protection movement is caused by a combination of its own weakness and the power of its opponents. If the environmental storms are to be effective, the balance of power needs to be put right. The government has an important role to play, but should not be relied upon too much. More important work will take place in the social sphere.

 A framework for setting up and developing environmental and public-interest organisations should be put in place. Public opinion should call for new legislation to make sure NGOs can take part in the environmental debate. Only organised social forces will be able to take on local government-supported anti-environmentalism.

NGOs should also work harder at being autonomous, training their staff in cooperation with higher education institutions and improving their accountability, evaluation, participation and regulation mechanisms to improve their public credibility. They should strengthen their links with government and push for a relatively independent system of NGO management, which will foster a positive, relationship of trust between NGOs and government. This will also be achieved through regular dialogue between environmental NGOs and the environment authorities, as well as through government’s willingness to monitor, manage and serve NGOs and the public interests they seek to represent.

Non-Chinese environmental organisations should take the country’s circumstances into account when assisting local groups. Entrusting projects to local organisations is one way to help. Another is to establish contacts with official organisations and to campaign for multinationals to make environmentally-sound investments. Chinese environment protection can also seek overseas funding. 

The weakness of China’s NGOs and the media’s relative silence on environmental issues exposes a lack of public participation. And it is the public who suffer most. The solution must be based on ensuring the public’s right to be informed, to participate, to speak out and to supervise. Environmental impact assessments should be improved to allow public participation and increase the depth and detailed nature of the process. Public opinion, expressed through the media and public hearings, should inform government environmental decision-making. Only a positive interaction between the public and the government will allow the environmental storms to be effective at a grassroots level, and be more than just environmental rhetoric.


Tang Hao, born in 1974, is a newspaper columnist and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window,and many other publications.

Homepage photo by Alex Vinter