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How volunteers can help freedom of information

Transparency regulations for business and government will help China’s ailing environment, writes Lu Dongting. But they will not go far enough, unless they incorporate the important work of environmental volunteers.

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The new transparency regulations, recently released by China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA),have generated a lot of debate. But reading the document, I found myself asking: “If we only end up reading official information, what is the point in transparency?”

Successful public participation in environmental policy-making requires that relevant information is made freely available, and resulting public opinion is taken into account. 

Environmental protection is often restricted to the actions of business and government. Businesses are required to make environmental information public, and the government now discloses regional environmental information with greater detail than before. This lets the public know where pollution is coming from, and helps them understand the overall local situation 

This information will help the public learn about environmental protection. The more detailed it is, the better the public will be able to form their own opinions – and participate to a greater degree in environmental decision-making.

The public can acquire environmental information in various ways; waiting for the government or business to provide it is only one method. The public can also take the initiative: seeking out information; surveying the environment situation; and using its own potential to educate itself. It is like the difference between passive models of education: where children sit at desks, trying to absorb what the teacher tells them; and active methods where the students use their own initiative to learn. 

The public often complain that government fails to supply what they need, as if they cannot supply it themselves. Sometimes I think the public is indolent, almost proud of its lack of interest. What kind of society is this, where 1.3 billion people go no further than read official pronouncements and accept them, regardless of their accuracy or detail? Can the people only gain knowledge the government hands down to them?

We live in an age of democracy and individual initiative, with extremely successful NGOs at work, yet the government is still the largest “public interest organisation”. The people should not just rely on its announcements, they should create them. We should all work together to gain accurate knowledge of the society in which we live.  

Certain Chinese environmental organisations have been carrying out long-term public education projects. An important method is to bring the public closer to nature, appreciating its beauty through activities such as bird-watching, or understanding its problems by carrying out surveys of water pollution. We can gain an understanding and respect for nature, and its majesty and mystery. And learning about nature’s problems – which are mainly the consequences of human actions – can engender a sense of responsibility and consideration of how to improve the environment.

There has been a certain degree of success. Many people now understand their local environment, and are able to identify sources of pollution or consider environmental issues from a wider point of view. The number of volunteers is increasing annually, with some becoming experts. 

But problems remain. There is still no national network of environmental organisations. All Chinese cities of a certain size should have robust organisations that can teach locals about their environment, but even provincial capitals often lack such a group. Organisations such as science committees, university departments, forestry and water departments should be facilitating public learning and gathering environmental information, but they are not. There is also a lack of continuity: many groups launch a flurry of short-term projects, but fail to sustain them and do little to build up their reputation. Future society will require “public environmental service providers”, groups will need to gather and monitor information about the local environment to build public credibility. This must be done in a systematic, long-term manner. Activities should be held weekly, and each event should cover a different aspect of nature-watching. The organisation should mobilise and organise the public: they should find and work with local experts, participate in and draw attention to local debate. 

It is a Herculean task that SEPA and local environmental authorities are faced with. They need to help develop local environmental organisations so they can undertake this work. It is quite simple: let local people provide the funding, participate in the projects and share the results. Then produce a regular overview of the national environmental situation as revealed through volunteer efforts, which can complement information released by government and business. This is essential for effective public participation in environmental decision-making. 

The public do not lack intelligence, ability, or even funding – they just lack the organisation to actively participate. Environmental organisations can help the public and government do more for transparency of environmental information; all that is needed is to establish these local organisations as soon as possible. Those that exist should be re-invigorated; and where they do not exist, they should be brought into being.


Dongting Lu is a Beijing-based reporter.

Homepage photo by Shanghai Sky

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The ball has been wrongly directed

I do not agree to the statement once the current information has became public, the crowds do not show interest on it, and also not agree to the statement whereby the crowds only complaining, environment are sensitive issue to residents in city, for instance, those residents visiting city, due to the fact that this is their bread and butter, and also their pride, or most of the people know that buying still water, but not drinking tap water, house cannot be moved in immediately after being renovated, due to the fact there is industry which caused pollution. Even in rural area, once the rivers have been polluted, the farmer will be able to notice it without using any advance apparatus to measure, because the crops will not lie, or increasing number of old folks infected by cough. That information would not be able to seal off. Our main concern is not to release the information become public or to seal it either, but is the effort from government. The degree of pollution happened at those places such as Huaihe River, Tai Hu Lake and Dianchi Lake do not require any detection; the condition will be able to tell with one’s own eyes. Though funding from Central Government is quite a big sum, what is the result?At current stage, government still monopolizes most of the public resources, what can be done by non-government organizations?
What is the main source of pollution for river, atmosphere and lake? Not the resident, but the industrial and mineral enterprises, which the local government also dare not to offence, what can be done by those non-government organizations? Release the information become public, how to ensure the reality and sources of the information, World Bank has assisting with the assessment report, however we are unable to supply databases required for the study, how to release the information become public? The figure which has been released, how to ensure the truth? Simply release the information become public cannot resolve the problem, but, with the condition of distribution of power and resources remain unchanged, the results from public involvement would not superior than the budget allocated for control pollution at Tai Hu Lake.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


透明度提高表示进步。 罗马不是一天造成的, 然而已经是事实了。

A step forward

Transparency is a step forward. Rome wasn't built in a day, and this is already promising. Luke

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


国际间在大力的推行供应和需求双方面的对于环境课题信息的获取, 此行动是值得注意的 (只要其余的获取权与环境相关)。和在其他国家一样,这项努力在中国有所影响。此有更多信息:http://www.accessinitiative.org/

The Access Initiative

It's worth noting that there is an international movement towards promoting both the _supply_ and _demand_ of access to information on environmental issues (as well as other 'access' rights related to the environment). This effort is making inroads in China, among other countries.

More information here: http://www.accessinitiative.org/

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The ball is back in your court...

The person posting the first comment led the discussion into a blind alley, which makes Chinese people fall into desperation, as we nearly always seem to. During discussions, we always find ourselves trapped without a way out. But what we are talking here does have a way out...

In China, research and developement organisations collecting information. For example, the China General Station of Environmental Monitoring in the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), and the meteorological stations under Central Bureau of Meteorology. They all take responsibility for tracking environmental trends. At one time, people had no rights of concerns in enquiring about this information. The public could merely get access to the information which the government offered. And the public was trained to be dependent. It is true the government own the resources, but the public also have power to act. They can only make a difference when being led by non-governmental organisations. The more powerful the public is, the more influence they will have over government there will be. The public should be strong itself, rather than depending on the government.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Comment 1 and 4 are very pursuasive.

SEPA requires that the environmental evaluation details become accessible to the public. However, even if transparency is in place, the public has nowhere to give their comments, or even if it is possible for them to comment, there's no real power. They may try for once, twice, and be left feeling desperately powerless. They will naturally start urging the government to become a better listener and start asking them to stop being someone only superficially engaged: look, we also have transparency and democracy.

On the other hand, just like what is said in Pan Yue's article: Idealism is to go ahead knowing that chances of success are slim. We need this attitude. We try, though we might not be able to achieve our goals; but if we give up, there's never going to be any change and nothing will be achieved at all.