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Getting involved

Ma Jun

Readinch

China is changing, and various interest groups are all vying for power. The public can no longer rely on the authorities alone to save the environment, argues Ma Jun, people from all walks of life must participate.

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The Chinese public should “make full use of the rights that the constitution grants them: the right to know, the right of expression, the right to monitor the government and participate to a greater extent in environmental protection.” These were the words of Pan Yue, deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), in a speech marking “Green China Day” on March 31 2007.

This mention of greater public participation got a lot of people’s attention and sparked a fierce debate in the media. So, what did he mean? Here I would like to make some preliminary remarks on why greater public participation is needed, and how members of the public can participate more in conservation work.

Why greater public participation is needed

The public should participate in environmental protection because the environment is of crucial public interest. In the face of increasing environmental challenges, traditional models of participation – such as picking up litter or planting a tree once a year – are no longer effective. A deeper level of participation is needed: the public needs to get directly involved in the management of environmental public affairs and work together to find solutions.

Environment departments have been strengthening their administration for some years now. But the shortsightedness of certain local governments has meant that local officials are often unable to enforce the law. Moreover, the cost of observing the law is often higher than the cost of breaking the law: a strange situation, which has led to companies sacrificing the environment for the sake of a profit. Although central government has made environmental protection a national priority, ecological degradation has not yet been curbed. The targets for emissions reductions and reduced energy consumption, set by central government at the start of the eleventh Five-Year Plan in 2006, have not been met.

Faced with such great challenges, we urgently need to push forward environmental protection and overcome the obstacles posed by the current system. As Pan Yue made clear in his speech, the final impetus to solve China's environmental crisis will have to come from the public. It is a question of the water we drink, the air we breathe and the world our children will grow up in, and the public will not compromise on these most basic of issues. Once the public has been brought into decision-making and management processes, they will become an immovable obstacle to officials and industrialists who would abuse their power for their own ends. The public will be policy-makers that cannot be bribed by developers, law-enforcers that cannot be ignored by polluters.

The lack of public involvement is the greatest flaw in the current system of environmental and natural resources management. China is now a society with multiple interest groups. It is not enough to rely on SEPA as the lone spokesperson for the environment. The public cannot sit by and watch environmental departments fight this battle on their own; they must enter into environmental protection work and support the environmental departments.

Greater public participation is also needed to transform China’s model of achieving economic growth. It is precisely because of the lack of widespread public involvement that many local governments tend towards industrial development when deciding development policies – whether consciously or not. Allowing the public a bigger say in the policy-making process will mean that environmental risks can be properly taken into account, and projects can be vetoed if they gain political results at the expense of the environment.

Public participation would change the cost-benefit analysis of new projects: it could encourage more energy-efficient projects and industries – such as service industries. Methods of achieving economic growth would be altered, eventually helping us to balance development with conservation. We could start to “put people first” and create a harmonious society. And if we really value disadvantaged groups, we should let them have full and comprehensive information, and allow them to participate in environmental protection work. Then they can start to compete with other interest groups and attain their right to a clean environment.

How the public can engage

In recent years, China has put a lot of effort into promoting public participation in environmental policy making, with some notable successes. China passed its first law demanding public participation in 2003: the law on environmental impact assessments. The next year the State Council went further, with its plan for lawfully implementing government administration, which meant that information disclosure became the rule, rather than the exception in government.

These rulings provided a legal and political framework for further public participation. But where do we go from here? Two-thousand years ago, the philosopher Mozi was asked, “What is the greatest righteousness in conduct?” He answered: “It is like building a wall: let those who can lay the bricks, lay the bricks; let those who can apply the mortar, apply the mortar; and let those who can carry the materials, carry the materials. Then the wall can be completed. To conduct oneself with righteousness is just like this.” Today, the situation is the same: to move forward, environmental protection needs different professions to play to their strengths and work together. The China Environmental Culture Promotion Association made a proposal to mark Green China Day. They called for all those who care about the environment to take the following steps:

* If you live in a residential compound, keep an eye on local construction projects. If they look to be creating pollution, ask the relevant environmental department to hold an environmental impact assessment and hearing.

* If you are a consumer, avoid buying products from companies classed as heavy polluters by the government.

* If you are a lawyer, help and support the victims of pollution.

* If you are a People's Congress deputy or People's Consultative Conference member, put forward proposals for urgent environmental action.

* If you work in the media, use any opportunity to tell people about the environment.

* If you work in the corporate world, check to see if your company has had an environmental assessment.

* If you are a celebrity, use your fame to set a model for green behaviour.

* If you work in the government, set an example by taking practical action to implement the “scientific concept of development.”

These actions all conform to national policy and are completely lawful. And they are all forms of participation that anyone can try out in their everyday lives. Take consumer action as an example: on this year’s World Water Day, 21 Chinese environmental organisations called for Chinese consumers to make “green choices” – to take companies’ environmental performance into account when buying their products, and use purchasing power to help companies improve their environmental record. In response, over 20 companies came forward to talk to the campaign; most of them provided written information about their actions and the measures they would be taking to rectify their mistakes (for more detailed information, see http://www.ipe.org.cn). Six of these companies promised to accept third-party inspections, hoping they could prove their ability to obey regulations in future.

Recent experiences have shown that China’s conditions are not yet ripe for full public participation. However, people can still engage to a great extent, and in many different areas. Environmental issues are at the forefront of public participation due to the new rules on official transparency. Freedom of information makes public participation possible, and the new regulations provide a relatively strong legal basis for participation. All action, from environmental impact assessment hearings to the “green choice” initiative, is founded on freedom of environmental information. We can now look forward to the State Council's regulations on freedom of information – China's first such regulations – coming into force.

Of course, public participation also needs to suit the prevailing social conditions. It should work to solve problems and social contradictions. The central government, in its 2006 resolution on creating the “harmonious socialist society,” said: “Orderly political participation of citizens should be expanded at all levels to guarantee that the people administer affairs of the state, the economy, culture and social affairs in accordance with the law. Policy-making should become more scientific and democratic, and disclosure of political affairs should be widened in order to guarantee, in accordance with the law, the citizens' right to know, right to participate, right to express opinions and right to supervise the government.” Orderly participation can only be recognised as the meeting point of the interests of government, business and the public when people at all levels of society enter into environmental protection work. It is clear that the public is willing to engage in environmental management in a legitimate, reasoned and orderly way, as has been demonstrated by the experience of open environmental impact assessment hearings, the participation of environmental groups in hearings and law-making, the “green choice” consumer initiative, and the efforts companies have been making to take social responsibility more seriously. We believe that if everybody makes the effort, public participation in environmental protection work will surely increase, and there will be a new dawn for environmentalism in China.

 

This article was first published in Green Leaf magazine

Ma Jun is director of the Institute of Public and Environment Affairs

Homepage photo by Alex Hailong

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政府深度治理也许更有用

把那些利益集团搞搞清楚,也许比老百姓深度参与来得更加有效。

Resolving problems within government maybe more helpful

Having a clear idea about the situation of interest groups and adopting related measures to deal with them are maybe more effective than increased participation by the public in environment protection.


中国全面的公众参与, 尚有待成熟?

“近年来环保领域公众参与的实践可以看出,全面的公众参与条件尚有待成熟”我非常感兴趣的听一听这一说法。这句子真正的含意是什么?中国,合肥[安徽省] Sofie Kruse

China not ripe for full public participation?

"Recent experiences have shown that China’s conditions are not yet ripe for full public participation"
I am very interested to hear some more about this. What exactly is meant by this statement?
Sofie Kruse, Hefei, China


看来环保部门真是需要帮助

比起实权的经济部门,看来环保部门真是权利还不够。在中国,政府求助民众的时候太少了,环保部门真是开了先河,不过也由此看出环保还没得到足够的重视,至少比起经济还矮了不止一头。

Environment departments do need help

Comparing to the economic departments which have the real power, environment departments really do not hold enough. In China, the government rarely turn to the public for help. The environment departments are the vanguard of it, but they are still attached to much less importance than the economic departments.


有些话不得不说,公众深度参与的前提是公众环保知识的普及和环保意识的提高。
就在两星期前,我在武汉环保网上咨询废旧电池的具体回收情况,却无人答复!
公众参与要是遇到这样的冷遇,该做何想?
Juliet

We sometimes cannot keep silent . The preconditions of extensive public involvement are the popularization of environmental protection knowledge and enhancement of environmental awareness. Just two weeks ago, I made an inquiry at a Wuhan environmental protection website concerning specific information about battery recycling, but got no response! How would you respond to such a cold shoulder against public participation? --Juliet


当热心遭受冷遇

有些话不得不说,公众深度参与的前提是公众环保知识的普及和环保意识的提高。
就在两星期前,我在武汉环保网上咨询废旧电池的具体回收情况,却无人答复!
公众参与要是遇到这样的冷遇,该做何想?
Juliet

When passion meets coldness

Some words I have to say. Further public involvement requires better environmental knowledge of the public and the improvement of their environmental awareness.

Two weeks ago, I posted an entry at the website of WuHan Environmental Protection Bureau, consulting some details on the battery recycling issues. However, no answer at all! When being treated with this type of coldness, what should the passionate public think about the whole thing?


楼主提法仍是在宣传口径上

公众参与的命题还是在宣传口径上和意识层次上。
然而我们该做的和将做的是:如何引导不同利益的相关者采取必要的组织手段和技术手段在微观层次上推进,并取得成效或成为广泛关注的媒体话题;环境影响评价法及其环保局制定的细则存在相当大的操作难度,不仅来自各政府利益间的抵触,也来自民众参与的难度。这是靠政府来引导带来的最大弊端。

不太同意潘岳源动力来自民众的说法,要从社会学“治理”的角度,在监控、引导和协调方面共同推进,该谁干什么就干什么!

语未亭

The idea remains in the phase of propaganda

By far public involvement still remains in the phase of propaganda and consciousness. however what we should and will do are facilitating relevant parties taking measures technically and organizably, and in a more detailed way. We should make this topic draw attentions more widely from public media. The idea that environment affects values and rules set by environmental departments are both hard to be manipulated, because of the benefits associated with different departments in the government and the difficulties of public involvement. This is one of the biggest abuse which are brought in by the leading of government in this field.

I do not agree with Pan Yue on the motive power coming from the public. From the perspective of "governing" in sociology, we should guide, harmonize and monitor at the same time, and take all the responsibilities that we due to.

Yu Wei Ting


小小进步推动社会转型

我觉得马军的观点是对的,那就是全面的公众参与条件尚有待成熟。公众在自身对社会事务的影响和其他社会群体对其所处社会影响的认识上还存在差距。我觉得为进一步加强环保意识,鼓励人们先从小事做起是十分必要的。

Smaller steps for a delicate society.

I agree with Ma Jun that the conditions here are not quite ripe for full public participation. There is certainly a gap between how the public here perceive their influence on government affairs, and how other societies around the world do. I think that encouraging people to make smaller changes first is a very positive approach to beginning the necessary process of making people more aware about environmental issues.


Raise awareness of humanity to a higher level

No crisis is terrifying! But the awareness of humanity cannot become a crisis! The climate change problem, a life-or-death matter, is misleading -- addressing the greenhouse effect problem will not permanently control the problem of climate change. We are trying to treat the symptoms but not its causes. In fact there is already proof that controlling environmental pollution adversely affects the melting ice and snow! -- The service community of new ideas for mankind -- (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

升华人类思维意识

任何危机都不可怕!但人类的思维意识决不能危机!事关生死存亡的气候变暖问题已被误导---温室效应不能根治气候变暖!治标不治本!事实已经证明治理环境污染贻误阻止冰雪融化!·····

人类新意服务共同体


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