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Special> Year-Ender
UPDATED: December 22, 2006 NO.51 DEC.21, 2006
Action Plan
China translates its awareness of environmental protection into workable laws

For the director of the top prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival for Farewell, My Concubine, Chen Kaige's latest historical blockbuster The Promise has earned him more humiliation than honor. Besides harsh criticisms over its extravagant budget, the only movie to represent the Chinese mainland failed to get a nomination for the Academy Award's Best Foreign Language Film category. Moreover, people cannot forgive Chen for taking the film crew of The Promise to Shangri La of southern Yunnan Province, a paradise rarely known to the outside world. The production team left behind totally defaced scenery around a primitive lake. The destruction aroused national concern and led the Ministry of Construction to impose a fine of 90,000 yuan in August.

In an ironic twist, a three-month campaign that invited the public to name and vote for green heroes, the famous director was nominated a candidate for "Green Chinese of the Year," an annual award for those who have played an active role in environmental protection in China. Those who voted for him said, "We know he cannot get the award but are still nominating him, for the issue of environmental protection wouldn't have got so much attention without him."

The subtle jeering of Chen Kaige ended on December 9 when the list of the eight winners of "Green Chinese of the Year" was released. Of course, he was not on the list. An anonymous organizer of the event, co-sponsored by State Environmental Protection Administration and six other government departments, said Chen's example was a warning to everyone: Whoever ignores environmental protection shall pay a high price.

The public attention to this year's election of green figures was unprecedented. The award committee received a total of 223 calls, nearly 80,000 online comments and 630,000 online votes, showing that ordinary Chinese are concerned about environmental protection.

China's rapid economic growth in recent years has focused attention on the high price that the creation of material wealth has extracted in terms of environmental degradation.

Tang Ying, a green volunteer from Beijing, was one of the online voters for the "Green Chinese of the Year" contest. In a recent speech on environment protection, she said, "Globally, virgin forests are dwindling at the rate of 16 million hectares every year and making the animal and plant species they support extinct. Global warming is increasingly triggering disastrous climate changes, leading to more typhoons, floods and droughts." She raised the alarm that fresh water supplies may not be adequate to satisfy human demands in the near future.

A 16-year-old high school student Han Wen said, "We are paying a heavy price for ignoring environmental protection. Of China's 700 rivers, 46.5 percent are polluted and 360 million farmers have no access to clean drinking water." He said he didn't dare think of how the ecological environment would look when he turned 60, if no measures to check pollution were put in place.

"Environmental pollution has become a major problem of China's development, which has not been properly solved," said Premier Wen Jiabao at a press conference this March. He said during the Tenth Five-year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2000-2005) China had achieved most of its economic goals but had failed to achieve two major environmental protection goals, namely curtailing emission of sulfur dioxide and chemical oxygen demand. It was stated in the Tenth Five-year Plan that the emission of sulfur dioxide and chemical oxygen demand should both be reduced by 10 percent by 2005 over the levels reached in 2000. In 2005, the emission of sulfur dioxide increased by 27 percent and chemical oxygen demand dropped by only 2 percent.

"Nearly all the water resources in China have been polluted," said Sheng Huaren, Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) on August 26. On the same day, a report on the implementation of the Environmental Protection Law was presented to participants at a session of the NPC Standing Committee.

In a three-month-long campaign, NPC Standing Committee sent out five law-enforcement teams nationwide to investigate garbage pollution, water pollution and atmospheric pollution. Sheng Huaren's conclusion is based on the shocking findings of pollution in China's mother river, the Yellow River, and its four tributaries.

Other worrisome findings from the inspections were that China's industrial garbage had gone up to nearly 8 billion tons, occupying a land area of more than 130,000 hectares; nearly half of China's urban garbage is piled up without recycling, and this has led to severe pollution of underground and surface water.

Policy shift

When China's Sixth National Environmental Protection Conference opened on April 17 in Beijing, the city was hit by a huge sand storm and was shrouded in dust estimated at 300,000 tons.

"We should have an open-door meeting. We all know that the dusty weather has lasted for more than ten days in Beijing. Besides the climate factors, we should see the urgency of environmental problems from it," said Premier Wen Jiabao at the conference, where he put forward "three shifts of policies."

The "three shifts of policies" refer to the shift from giving more weight to economic growth over environmental protection to paying equal attention to both goals; abandoning the development model of "polluting first and then redressing problems later;" and the shift from total reliance on administrative measures to a mix of legal, economic, technological and administrative measures.

Minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) Zhou Shengxian said, "The 'three shifts' are very significant." He said that the new importance to environmental protection can be seen from the fact that environmental considerations are now being reckoned in regional development, environmental management has become important aspect of industrial restructuring, environmental standards have become important conditions for market entry and environmental costs have become part of the pricing mechanism.

The 'New Deal'

"The implementation of environmental policies will be as forceful as steel, not as weak as tofu," said Zhou Shengxian, after surveying environmental protection practices in 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities this year. In the "New Deal" led by Zhou, the most significant step is the inclusion of environmental work in officials' evaluation and responsibility system.

Without such a system, local government officials would usually support environmental protection work in words, but not in action. In the past, the weak implementation of the policies of local governments was the biggest loophole. Now, pollution reduction has been made a concrete task for governors and mayors.

Another breakthrough is the launch of the Southwest Environmental Protection Supervision Center of SEPA on December 5. The Chinese Government announced the plan to set up five regional environmental protection supervision centers in July. "The five centers will come under the direct leadership of SEPA and will be independent of local governments," said an official from SEPA, involved in the setting up of the centers. But, he also said the five centers would cooperate with the environmental protection agencies of local governments in implementing relevant laws and regulations.

According to SEPA's plans, the five centers will help officials solve environmental problems that extend beyond one drainage area or one administrative region. The goal is to set up a network of competent environmental supervision centers covering every province, autonomous region and municipality by 2010, which will conduct real-time supervision of 65 percent of the biggest polluters in China.

Zhou Shengxian pointed out another breakthrough is a separate account for environmental protection in the government budget. In the past, expenses on environmental protection were listed under other entries in the budget. SEPA experts have said that China needs to spend 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on environmental protection but until 1999 the figure stood at barely 1 percent of GDP.

According to SEPA, China's investment on environmental protection in the next five years is expected to reach 1.3 trillion yuan, or 1.6 percent of GDP. This marks a significant increase considering that the investment from the budget of the Central Government in the past five years was only 110 billion yuan.

Legal support

"Companies will rather pay fines than use the money to purchase pollution control equipment," said Huang Xihua, Deputy Director of Environmental Protection Bureau of Huizhou City, Guangdong Province. Her city is located in the Pearl River Delta, which is known for its high concentration of factories churning out consumer goods.

According to SEPA, the cost of violating environmental protection legislation is less than 20 percent of the damage. "The primary problem in China's environmental protection legislation is that the upper limit of administrative fines is too low," said Wang Canfa, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law.

Wang said China has passed nine environmental protection laws and 15 laws on natural resources; signed and ratified 51 multinational environmental treaties and 1,600 local environmental regulations. Wang said the problem is that many laws and regulations were drafted during the planned economy period and fail to reflect reality. For example, the Environmental Protection Law was passed in 1989 and has not been revised once in the past 17 years.

"We will try to set a comprehensive legislation network on environmental protection in five to 10 years," said Zhou Shengxian, head of SEPA.

Research on revising the Environmental Protection Law has been initiated. According to Professor Wang Shuyi, head of the Research Institute of Environmental Law of Wuhan University that participated in the research, "The draft will probably be worked out in 2008." 

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