Building a Cleaner China From the Grassroots Up

Kristen McDonald
Date: February 25, 2015

First published in China-US Focus

In a mid-sized industrial city in China, a staff member of the environmental group Green Hope answers her cell phone. On the line is a middle manager at Pearl Steel Group who is calling to ask about a report Green Hope issued on air pollution from the company’s nearby flagship steel plant. In recent years, the municipal environmental protection bureau had fined the plant several times for violations of their pollution permits, but Green Hope’s report – which details these violations alongside photo evidence and testimonials from rural residents living near the plant – finally spurred the company to take action. The company manager asks for a meeting with Green Hope staff to discuss how it might better control its pollution as well as more fully share environmental information with the public.

While this particular story is fictional, events of this kind, which were unthinkable even a few years ago, have become an increasingly common occurrence across China. Brought by stronger regulatory support for public engagement in environmental affairs and a widespread concern about China’s devastating levels of pollution, China’s local environmental groups are finding themselves well positioned to ensure that government promises for a cleaner, greener future are realized.

Space for grassroots environmental action in China has grown in recent years thanks to several key regulatory changes. The first is in the area of data sharing. Citizens are able to access more information than ever about pollution and polluters following the passage of  information disclosure laws in 2008. China’s newly revised environmental law, which came into force January 1, 2015, takes accountability a step further by requiring real-time disclosure of pollution discharge data from key industries. And since the law also allows the government to fine polluters more, and more often, factories that routinely discharge illegal amounts now face a regulatory system that could actually do damage to their bottom line.

The new environmental law also requires that governments respond to citizen accusations against polluters, and clarifies that non-governmental organizations have the right to bring environmental lawsuits. A recent Supreme Peoples’ Court interpretation confirmed that China’s local courts will now be instructed to hear cases brought by citizen groups, including public interest cases. Many environmental groups are positioning themselves to take advantage of this new sphere of action.

Meanwhile, air pollution has become so critical across China that last year Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war on pollution” and the State Council revealed a far-reaching Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan. This included absolute limits on particulate pollution in certain regions of China, and bold wording on “widely mobilizing citizen participation” to help deal with the mounting crisis.

The national government of China is clearly sending a green light to citizen groups to take an active part in forging a more sustainable development path. But what happens region by region and city by city depends on how committed local government actors are to making tough changes – and the extent to which local watchdog groups (like Green Hope) are able to negotiate the space available for participation and advocacy.

One challenge is that local government officials are often unsure of the role civil society groups can and should play. In many cases, environmental groups can and do tactfully remind government departments about their duties to disclose information and listen to public concerns. And in fact, due to these efforts, many local environmental protection bureaus now see grassroots environmental groups as key allies, acting as “eyes and ears” on the ground, and bringing pressure for resolution of problems that officials have been unable to solve themselves.

But attitudes towards grassroots environmental groups varies between government departments as well as between regions. Where environmental enforcement is already a priority, such as developed regions along China’s coastline, citizen groups have an easier time making headway against polluters. For example, some local governments already have aggressive plans to phase out dirty energy; as with Hangzhou municipality’s “zero coal” plan which will phase out coal boilers in two years. In places like Hangzhou, local environmental groups have an important role to play in ensuring these government clean-up plans are enforced. But getting local governments in less-developed “energy frontier” regions to take better care of the environment can be more challenging. High profile scandals in coal development provinces of China have demonstrated some government officials are not only aware of industry misdeeds, they are themselves part of the problem.

More could certainly be done by China’s leaders to facilitate widespread citizen enforcement and engagement– such as enshrining participation principles in China’s next five year plan. But to a large extent China’s environmental groups are already succeeding at turning these principals into reality by setting up independent pollution monitoring networks, pollution reporting hotlines, and online pollution information platforms. Moreover, they are helping ordinary citizens become productively engaged in seeking solutions. For example, in September of 2014, the Beijing based Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs released a cell phone app that allows citizens to monitor pollution discharge data in real time and draws the link between specific sources of air pollution and air quality. Just by releasing the app, some 65 industries came forward with a pledge to correct their pollution record.

More has to be done– China’s water and air pollution issues have never been more severe. But the good news is at least in some parts of China, long-time polluters are feeling the squeeze of robust pollution regulations combined with actual on-the-ground enforcement. And China’s grassroots environmental groups are usually the reason better enforcement happens.