China will no longer cap pollution fines for companies in a renewed attempt to address its loose environmental regulations amid mounting public anger over runaway pollution.
The latest move is enshrined in amendments to the national environmental law, which was passed by the country's legislative body last week after a two-year discussion among scholars and officials. The revised environmental law will come into effect on January 1, 2015. The old law was adopted in 1989.
Chinese media have claimed the amendments make the new environmental law the strictest one in 25 years. The new law lends more power to environmental agencies to use punitive powers to rein in powerful polluters. It also vows to protect “red lines”, in reference to vulnerable ecology and water sources.
Authorities also hint through the amendment that they would allow more leeway for individuals to take legal action against environmental damages, which still remains a sensitive area of litigation in China.
China's unbridled economic development has been accompanied by severe environmental pollution, with companies often reluctant to enforce environmental laws. Its annual double-digit growth rate over the past three decades has turned the country into the second largest economy after the US, but the expansion-at-any-cost model has taken a heavy toll on the country's air, water and soil, great concerns for a public empowered by social media through which they air their grievances.
The alteration of China's environmental law underscores an urgency to tackle pollution head-on as the country reels from the widespread pollution. It came shortly after China released a sobering report admitting that nearly one-fifth of the country's farmland is polluted.
Liu Meng, a UN worker with a focus on China, explained what the law means for NGOs on microblogging service Sina Weibo:
Due to the “GDP effect”, many high-polluting industries gained local government's protection in the past, NGOs and environmental lawyers have a lot of difficulties in suing polluting enterprises. The new amendments have given a certain degree of rights to social organisations to sue “major polluting enterprises”, so China's NGOs will play a bigger role in environmental supervision. In recent weeks, Hebei province has announced it will initiate programs to allow the public to participate in the legislation of environmental laws, it has taken a lead role!
Zhu Haijiu, a professor of economics based in Zhejiang, wrote on Weibo:
The fundamental reason for tragedies in the environment is the tragedies in the rule of law, it shows the degeneration of laws.
Earlier, Zhu told Ifeng.com that it's still premature to consider the amendments’ progress:
The amendments will give environmental authorities greater power to punish polluting enterprises, but does this represent progress? I don't think so. We can't equate “a more powerful environmental agency” to “better environmental governance”. The problem is that law's implementation has been weak and it's not supervised effectively, plus the public has no channel through which they can hold environmental authorities accountable. Therefore, until we strengthen punitive measures against environmental authorities rather than polluting enterprises, we can't call it real progress.
Singling out a polluting factory in Foshan in Guangdong province, Weibo user “holdon2014″ offered a bit of tongue-in-check commentary:
Your opportunity to make money has come! You will be spending endless time to issue fines to Daoming chemical factory number 1 and your year-old bonus will be handsome.