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One year of open information

In May 2008, the Chinese government implemented new transparency rules on environmental information. chinadialogue publishes a round-table discussion about the successes and failures of the measures.

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In April 2009, the authorities in Heilongjiang province, northeast China, held a meeting about the enforcement of environmental law and the handling of pollution incidents. However, when journalists were told they could not obtain a list of firms guilty of polluting illegally, some of those present left in anger. Despite the defences offered by provincial officials, doubts about the situation remain.

May 1 this year marked one year since the trial implementation of the Chinese government’s Measures for the Disclosure of Environmental Information. However, the lack of openness in Heilongjiang indicates that problems remain.

In order to understand the achievements and the issues that have arisen this year, and to examine how to further promote environmental disclosure, the environment channel at Sohu.com, chinadialogue and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) held a seminar looking back at the implementation of the Measures.

In attendance at the meeting were Wang Jin, a professor at Peking University’s Environmental and Resource Law Center and one of the contributors who drafted the Measures; Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs; Yan Yiming, a noted environmental lawyer; and Alex Wang and Hu Yuanqiong, both from NRDC’s China Project. The meeting was hosted by Qie Jianrong, a reporter for the Legal Daily.

What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion:

Qie Jianrong: How have the Measures been implemented since May 1, 2008? What effects have we seen?

Wang Jin: The disclosure of environmental information is a breakthrough for the process of public participation.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, our systems have always been secretive: information was confidential on principle; disclosure was the exception rather than the rule. But the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) was the first of all the ministries to publish plans for implementing the Regulations on Governmental Information Disclosure, published last year. Since the publication of the Measures, a series of guides, lists, methods and procedures have been established, and currently that platform is running smoothly.

Ma Jun: The government really has done a lot of work over the past year. Information from the IPE’s Water Pollution Map shows that from 2004 to 2007 there were 2,900 recorded cases of pollution by businesses. But we have already received over 10,000 reports for 2008 alone. The government has acted much more emphatically since the implementation of the Measures.

In 2006, only Shanghai did a reasonable job of disclosing incidences of pollution by businesses. But since the drafting of the Measures in 2007, nearby cities such as Suzhou, Wuxi, Ningbo and Shaoxing have started to take a more systematic approach to disclosing breaches of standards and regulations. Since implementation, some areas that used to lag behind have caught up: for example, Tianjin and some areas in the Pearl River Delta. There have also been some very creative changes: for example, in Wuhan pollution monitoring equipment is connected to the internet, and the public is able to access the data directly.

Hu Yuanqiong: Once the Measures were published, NGOs such as the NRDC, the China Environmental Culture Promotion Association, Global Village and the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims organised training sessions investigating the role of the new rules and how to use them to effect. Many environmental NGOs, such as Green Cross in Xiamen and Jiangsu’s Friends of Green Environment, used this new legal tool to produce guidance appropriate to their own localities.

Qie Jianrong: Besides these achievements, what problems or failings have been revealed?

Yan Yiming: Since May 4 last year I have been requesting environmental information from the environmental authorities in places such as Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu. Over the year I have got hold of some information, but the requests procedure is tiresome.

The Measures do provide a legal basis, but, generally speaking, local government is still unwilling to act and will look for excuses to avoid doing so. The procedures they provide for obtaining information are difficult and complex: it’s as if they don’t really want to tell you anything.

Despite the legal foundation, it is hard to hold the government to account if it does not disclose environmental information, as it is so powerful. Local governments always have inappropriate influence over the courts, and cases brought by the public will come up against a range of difficulties.

Some local governments, perhaps under pressure to maintain GDP figures, connive with polluting firms or treat them leniently. The companies will refuse to release information, citing commercial confidentiality. However, when the public interest is at stake, I think commercial confidentiality should not apply: information must be disclosed.

Hu Yuanqiong: The Measures state that every March 31, environmental authorities should publish an environmental information disclosure report. But figures from the Procuratorate Daily (Jiancha Ribao) show that as of midnight on March 31, 2009, nine of the State Council ministries; 13 of its 16 directly-subordinate bodies; five of its six administrative bodies; 11 of its 14 directly-subordinate institutions; and 15 of the 19 national bureaus administered by ministries had failed to do so. None of the State Council’s 29 discussion and coordination bodies published a report; only nine of the 31 provincial-level governments published one.  

Ma Jun: The biggest problem has been the almost total lack of action from businesses.

The IPE and over a dozen other environmental NGOs sent a joint reminder to almost 30 companies in breach of pollution standards or quotas, but only four or five responded. One multinational said that in a poor market it could not survive too much bad news, so it could not publish data on emissions.

According to the Measures, major polluters who do not disclose information on pollutants can be fined up to 100,000 yuan [US$14,659] by the local environmental authorities, who can then publish the data themselves. But so far not a single firm has been fined. That’s a serious failure.

Qie Jianrong: What causes the problems that have been revealed? What should we do to better promote the disclosure of environmental information? 

Yan Yiming: The methods and procedures of disclosure should be improved. Some companies do submit to pressure and publish information, but they will do it on television in the middle of the night. They might as well not publish it.

The data that has been disclosed also needs interpretation, in order to explain to the public what effect it has on their lives in order that they can respond.

Alex Wang: In the United States, oversight of information has become an important method of supervision, after administrative orders and market mechanisms. The Chinese public must learn from this and actively exercise these legal rights if the law is to be effectively implemented and problems with law and implementation are to be identified and solved. If there is an effective mechanism to resolve disputes, then these questions and disputes can be beneficial.

Wang Jin: The disclosure of government and environmental information in China is still relatively difficult. One reason is the tradition of confidentiality: although these new rules have brought a number of breakthroughs, government officials are still opposed to openness. There needs to be a process of ideological change and adaptation.

For decades we have been used to relying on the government. Now we need to learn to continuously put pressure on the environmental authorities to exercise their supervisory duties. When administrative measures fail, legal ones can be used. It is not a matter of winning or losing, it is about helping the legal system understand the importance of this issue.

Currently the Measures cover 17 types of information that the government should disclose. But these categories are broad, and need to be refined with the use of subcategories. Documents that clarify disputed areas are needed to help the public exercise their legal rights.   

Ma Jun: Failures in administrative and legal redress are not going to be solved quickly, but we can use other measure to solve these issues. For example, many big firms do not care about a 100,000-yuan fine, but they do feel the pressure if information is made public and available to consumers. There is a huge potential for the use of environmental information in public oversight.

Homepage photo by Green Sohu

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



A long way with heavy responsibility to go

The system of Chinese tradition is characterised as ‘confidentiality’, which creates a common feeling among the public that government’s policies are always very far from both people and reality. Now everything has to start from scratch due to the implementation on disclosure of information. It is undoubtedly that such process will be very long.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The benefits of local governments and enterprises binding

The cause for the government to help enterprises cover up pollution information is the benefits the government and enterprises gain from binding together. The only way for this information to be made public is to break this binding and its benefits.

Translated by Nathalie Thorne

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Open information is an imperative

What Attorney Yan says is completely correct, if the open information explanation work is to be done correctly, to let everybody know the severity of the damage being done to the environment, this kind of intense supervision is needed. On the contrary, the more intense the supervision, I believe the government and enterprises will be put under more pressure, and will work even better towards open information. These two things are mutually boosting. Furthermore, I think that the relevant legislation must be even firmer and clearer, with the government being the important executive force. If it really is possible to completely implement according to law, successfully protecting the environment is definitely not a difficult matter.

Translated by Nathalie Thorne

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Well, that is how it has always been

In China, there has always been a tradition of confidentiality, where the government holds most information, but controls strictly over the amount of information to be released to the public. For us, who have always been living in such an environment, it does not seem like a big deal. Yet, it is astonishing when we accidentally find out that the outside world has actually been full with of information we have never heard of before.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Hard to legislate, even harder to enforce

It seems that the construction of a legal system has always been a difficult problem in China. There has been an absence of legislation in many fields, and the process taken to draft and pass them is unbelievably long. Even after its legislation, laws must encounter the problem of its enforcement, which is exactly the situation the Measures is at now. If the unfavourable situation for monitoring the implementation status of legislation has been persistently existed, along with the inefficiency of punishments, it is perhaps a huge difficulty of taking any steps in construction of legalisation in China.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



on comment 4

I sympathise. But there are good reasons to suppose that an open information system is healthy. For example, freedom of information in Britain has resulted in the exposure of the corrupt expenses claims by members of the British parliament, currently a major scandal in the UK. Also, where information systems are closed, information is not tested, so policy can be built on the wrong foundations, with catastrophic results. If systems are open, more people can criticize and contribute -- and data becomes more reliable. At present, international organisations (and many Chinese ones) have a lot of trouble believing some Chinese data -- much of it is contradictory; data from different sources don't correlate -- so it makes it look unreliable to anyone who is trying to verify it.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Businesses don't even bat an eyelid

Disclosure of information is not easily obtained, and in many situations, after businesses do make information available to the public, no measures of remedy are taken. This is an attitude of indifference. The weak status of local protection agencies allows them to operate at a discount. Leaders all treat economic growth as the top priority, especially in the western provinces where this kind of phenomenon is very serious.
Translated by Afra Tucker

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Agree with No.2

For some local governments, the importance of so-called environemtal assessment and public information is obvious: either to cheat the public by formalism, or to hide facts in the face of the public. The truth gradually comes out only when accidents happen. But everybody knows that the pollution by those enterprises hurt people's health both physically and mentally. Such loss can hardly be compensated with money.

This comment is translated by Emily Li.