China needs to crack down on laxist environmental officials

From ToxicLeaks

While environmental regulation has improved greatly in China, the issue now is the implementation and the enforcement of the rules. And the case of Qingyun county is a good example of the laxism of some officials of local government. When the Qingyun Chemical Technology Company was caught red-handed violating environmental regulations, the Qingyun county environmental agency was obscenely indulgent and only inflicted formal sanctions. This has triggered an investigation from local prosecutors and the filing of a case against the Qingyun county environmental agency. In a landmark decision, the court sided with the prosecution even though the punishment of the guilty agency was not made public. This case illustrates the progress of the rule of law in environmental affairs but it also proves that there is still a long way to go !

A victorious case against the lax officials of Qingyun county[edit | edit source]

A landmark ruling just raised the hopes of environmental activists in China. For the first time in the country's history, a local environmental agency was found guilty of laxism by the courts. Indeed the officials in charge of enforcing environmental regulation in Qingyun county (Shandong province, in the East of China) had been incredibly indulgent with the Qingyun Chemical Technology Company. This company had been producing dye without following environmental regulations since 2008, which had polluted the local area, and the Qingyun county environmental officials hadn't taken any measures to address the issue. This drew the attention of prosecutors that have recently received the right to sue officials when they are not doing their job. This legal reform is aimed precisely at making sure local environmental agencies are aggressive enough in punishing environmental crimes. The prosecutors started investigating the issue in 2014 and found that the Qingyun county officials had been revoltingly lax. The prosecutors issued several warnings, in May 2014 and January 2015 and ultimately filed a lawsuit in December 2015. And in June 2016, the courts ruled in favour of the prosecution and found the Qingyun environmental agency guilty of “illegal acts” in its relations with Qingyun Chemical Technology Corporation. While the punishment inflicted to the agency was not revealed by the court, the judges said that the officials had finally taken “corrective measures” during the trial. This is clearly a landmark ruling because it's the first time the Chinese government agrees to let local government agencies be judged and found guilty. However, it's also the sign that the environmental rules are not always enforced and that corruption often hinders the war on pollution China's leaders have announced.

The sign that corruption is hindering the war on pollution[edit | edit source]

This change in the legal system that allows prosecutors to go after local government is a major improvement because corruption is a great problem that is stalling the war on pollution. China ranks very high in Transparency International's corruption index, at the 100th rank, alongside Algeria and Suriname. This corruption affects very strongly environmental policy. For instance, at the end of June, a former deputy minister of the environment, Zhang Lijun, was indicted by Chinese prosecutors for taking bribes worth around RMB 2.4 million ($360,000) and in exchange giving his approval for projects that otherwise should not have been approved. This is a striking illustration of the level of corruption that can exist in central government. But the worse of it is rooted in the provinces, where local leaders often ignore the rules decided in Beijing and look the other way when companies have disastrous impacts on the environment or the people. For instance, many of the new coal-fired power plants are actually quite as dirty as the old ones and have been approved through bribery. Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is another example of a major actor of the Chinese economy and holds an appalling record in terms of corruption offenses. When one looks at the list of environmental disasters than CNPC was involved in, such as the 2005 chemical plant explosion in Jilin, one can realize that CNPC can easily hold its own against Western fossil fuel corporations like Chevron or Exxon. The former head of CNPC pleaded guilty of corruption when he was judged for all his wrongdoings in 2015. CNPC illustrates the might of the State-Owned Enterprises (SOE) in China. As Yang Dali, a researcher from the University of Chicago, puts it : “Each [SOE] tends to be a mini empire,(...) they have become very powerful vested interests in the Chinese system”. Indeed, these companies dominate their economic sector thanks to a monopolistic position and because they are state-owned, they are very close to local government. Furthemore, local government leaders continue to try to boost their economic results and seek growth at all costs. This is the perfect recipe for a persisting corruption that is making the war on pollution impossible in many provinces. Chinese citizens are growing angry as they see that this abiding corruption is protecting the companies that are destroying their environment and making them sick. In 2011, the people of Wukan in Guangdong province rebelled against the local police because of the corruption and in 2016 they seem ready to start again as nothing has changed in their village despite the speeches of Xi Jinping.

Will this program continue ?[edit | edit source]

So beyond doubt, this new prosecution power to sue local government is a reason to hope that China will finally tackle the environmental problems that are poisoning its people, rivers, soil and air. However, there are also some reasons to doubt that this landmark decision will be the game changer China so desperately needs. Alex Wang, a law Professor at UCLA, analyses this new development of the Chinese legal system with caution : “This is part of an expansion in recent years of the authority for regulators, courts, citizens, police and prosecutors to take on the country’s severe environmental problems,” but “we can’t be sure that this newfound supervisory power will become an effective regulatory tool in the long term. (…) We have too many past examples of local authorities clamoring to be the first example of this or that new innovation only to never see a second case. (…)” Alex Wang stresses that it will take time for the Chinese prosecutors to be up to the tremendous task that is set before them. “Procuratorates need to build internal expertise in environmental cases,” he said. “State attorney general offices and the Department of Justice, for example, have special environmental divisions.” According to Rachel Stern, a professor from Berkeley, the change must also reach higher levels of government to have a real impact : “It is also worth watching to see if prosecutors ever dare sue E.P.B.s above the county level. The lowest rungs of government are always the easiest to criticize, and it will be noteworthy if prosecutors start holding higher-level officials accountable for environmental protection.” The question is : how far is the central government willing to go in punishing local government for its leniency towards environmental offenders ? Let us not forget that government censors blocked from the Internet the documentary “Under the dome” in 2015. This film aimed precisely at criticizing CNPC and other companies for using their gigantic profits to fight environmental regulation and corrupt officials. Furthermore, the law still doesn’t allow citizens or organizations to sue local government themselves, that power only lies with prosecutors. So really, this evolution of the legal system is only one first step. And if Xi Jinping is serious about fighting corruption and pollution, two closely tied Chinese plagues, he will have to go much further.

To sum up, the case of Qingyun county’s lax environmental agency is a sign that environmental policy is shifting in China. The fight against pollution is leaving the field of rhetorics and is becoming a reality. This evolution was desperately in a country ravaged by pollution and where corruption engulfed every attempt at environmental regulations. However, one can wonder whether this change will be lasting and whether Xi Jinping will succeed in forcing his will on local officials and the economic might of the SOEs.