WSJ Blog Says It Like It Is…To Stamp Out Pollution and Corruption, China Could Start With Legal Reform

Maybe it’ll happen – but in our lifetimes ?

here’s the post and link and once again we have Mr Lubman to thank for commonsense

Three weeks ago, thousands of angry residents protested against a plan to build a garbage incinerator in Bolou County in Guangdong Province; several dozen persons were detained. Anti-pollution protests are a major force fueling an unprecedented level of social unrest in China, but despite recent improvements to the Environmental Protection Law, close links between local governments and polluters undermine its effective enforcement. Chinese environmental laws will not have enough teeth unless they are explicitly linked with policy by the Communist Party governmenon two key fronts: the ongoing campaign against corruption and the focus on legal reform at the party’s Central Committee meeting, due to take place later in October.

Environmental protests have been rising steadily: the number of environmental protests increased by an average of 29% every year since 1996, according to Yang Zhaofei, vice-chair of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, quoted early last year. Pollution has now displaced land disputes as the leading cause of social unrest in China, according to Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the Communist Party’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee. In May a demonstration against another incinerator project near the city of Hangzhou turned violent and left 10 demonstrators and almost 30 police officers injured; 60 people were detained for the troublingly vague charge of “violent and rumor-mongering behavior.”

The Environmental Protection Law was revised earlier this year to strengthen the enforcement powers of local officials. Two American law professors, long-time experts on environmental law in China, have offered a mixed assessment of the impact of the revised law. Some improvements are clear: Authorities can now detain persistent polluters for up to 15 days–the first time the law provides for the power of detention. It can also fine them more heavily than before and can require them to disclose pollution data. The new law is intended to reinforce the use of environmental targets as a factor in local officials’ annual performance reviews, instead of relying primarily on economic metrics.

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But authors Alex Wang (UCLA) and Benjamin van Rooij (UC Irvine) are concerned that the new law doesn’t end the “impunity” that polluters presently enjoy. Local governments provide most of the budgets for environmental agencies, drawing on revenues that come from local businesses that are the chief polluters. Paradoxically, if pollution is reduced, lowered environmental fees could shrink the agencies’ budgets. In addition, the authors say, more fundamental problems remain: local governments restrain citizen lawsuits out of fear of social unrest, the Supreme People’s Court restricts class actions, and national restrictions limit the registration of civil organizations that could sue polluters.

The authors’ conclusion is powerful. They rightly urge that the government must “confront the limits of its economic and political model” and create “impartial administrative and judicial institutions to regulate pollution.”

The negative effect of corruption on environmental policy is well known,  and Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Pan Yue has called for legal reform to provide “ironclad implementation” of the amended law.

The emphasis on legal institutions in environmental enforcement dovetails in an interesting way with observations on the current national campaign against corruption. A recent article on Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, the leader of the anticorruption drive, noted that people familiar with his thinking say Wang believes the current crackdown is only “temporary” until China’s “investigatory and legal system” is improved.  An editorial last month in the national weekly magazine Caixin spoke out strongly in a similar  vein, arguing that for the anticorruption campaign to be effective, “a rule of law oriented system to monitor any exercise of power needs to be formed as quickly as possible.”

Attention to strengthening legal institutions is timely as the Central Committee prepares to convene the Fourth Plenum, Oct. 20-23. President Xi Jinping publicly has urged initiation of judicial reforms intended to increase the courts’ distance from the influence of local governments.

The campaigns against pollution and corruption should be clearly linked whenever possible to the current emphasis on raising the influence of the judicial system. The reverse holds true as well: improving legal enforcement would add weight and credibility to the drives against corruption and pollution. The confluence of these currents in policy could add needed energy to reforming the local Party and government institutions that are simultaneous targets of the two campaigns and the focus on law reform.