文章 Articles

Access still barred

Three years after China passed green transparency legislation, getting hold of actual data remains a tough task, writes Meng Si.

Article image

Three years have passed since China introduced legislation confirming the public’s right to access environmental information. But both experts and members of the public who have requested the disclosure of pollution data – from both government and business – have found that the vague terms in which the regulations are couched are impeding their implementation.  

“Although the regulations list 17 types of information that should be disclosed and only one short clause on exemptions, that one short clause has become a catch-all,” explained Wang Canfa, director of the Center for Legal Assistance to Victims of Pollution, speaking at a seminar on April 27 to mark the law’s three year anniversary. In many other countries, he said, exceptions are specifically listed and everything else must be disclosed, a system he believes China should also adopt.

Regulations on the disclosure of government information and a trial method for the disclosure of environmental information were officially implemented three years ago. The April seminar, organised by Chinese NGO Friends of Nature, brought together experts and environmental activists to examine how those regulations are being put into practice.

The eighth article of the regulations on disclosure of government information rules that any data that threatens national security, public security, economic security or social stability must not be disclosed. According to Wang, those exceptions are commonly used by officials to block disclosure and this one clause alone has greatly reduced the level of information released to the public.

In addition, said Wang, the boundary between state secrets and commercial secrets is fuzzy. He said that many firms go so far as to class the details of their pollution-treatment equipment and release of pollutants as commercial secrets – claiming that those requesting this information could use it to identify the raw materials and technologies being used.

Yong Rong, government and public affairs officer at Greenpeace, said that in 2009 his organisation asked Zhuzhou Environmental Protection Bureau to release the pollution record of two companies. Two months later, a reply came: as listed companies, both firms were sensitive to the release of information. In addition, there was no electronic version of the 200 items of information requested, and therefore no way to publish the data online.

Chen Liwen of Green Beagle, another Chinese environmental NGO, requested information on a garbage-incineration facility in Jiangsu province, eastern China, from the local authority – Hai’an county – and the Nantong Environmental Protection Bureau. Despite going in person to make her request, the data Chen received was useless. Her full request was refused due to commercial confidentiality and the fact that her organisation had no connection to the facility.

“When compared with government, businesses are doing pitifully on environmental disclosure,” said Hu Jing of the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL). “Even disclosure by large firms is extremely limited.”

CUPL’s Environment and Resources Law Institute and UK-based campaign group Article 19 carried out an investigation into data-disclosure levels, making a series of requests to governments and businesses. Of five large companies approached in and around Beijing – Shougang Steel, Beijing Eastern Chemicals, China Huaneng, China National Petroleum Corporation and Beijing Hyundai – disclosed information on the release of pollutants or on voluntary agreements with environmental authorities to improve their environmental performance. In some cases, no reason was provided for refusing the request.

In 2008, pollution from the Gaoantun incinerator in Beijing led locals to take to the streets in protest, forcing the government to publicly apologise and promise to invest a further 90 million yuan (US$13.9 million) in improving the facility. Local resident Zhao Lei asked the government for information on how that money had been spent – and much later received a reply admitting there was a pollution problem, promising to improve the situation and thanking her for her concern, but saying nothing about the 90 million yuan.

In 2009, Beijing resident Yang Zi asked the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau for data from tests at a medical-waste incineration site, and the explanation for granting the site its temporary license – only to be told that the government was supervising the site but did not have any information.

During CUPL and Article 19’s investigation, reasons offered by environmental authorities for refusing data requests included the information being “inconvenient to provide” and “not suitable for disclosure, as it could cause media speculation”.

Wang Canfa believes that the people who actually handle the data requests in the environmental protection bureaus have to consult their superiors in each case – and this is why the requests are often blocked.

Xia Jun, a lawyer at the Beijing Zhongzi Legal Practice, described the last three years as “one step forward, two steps back”. Wang explained that, in 2010, the State Council ruled that requests could be refused if the information was irrelevant to the applicant’s work, life, research or other particular needs, and that each request could only ask for one piece of information, greatly limiting the scope of information the public can demand.

According to CUPL and Article 19’s report, of 11 types of information tested, the easiest to obtain was general information such as planning for local environmental protection and environmental quality. Types of dangerous waste and how it was handled, amounts of waste released and lists of companies breaching local limits were hardest to come by.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, has argued that a lack of motivation and poor enforcement are the primary reasons environmental problems remain unresolved. Public participation is needed to make up for those failings – but obtaining environmental information is a precondition for that public participation. In 2009, Yang Chaofei, head of the department of policies, laws and regulations at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said that “local environmental protection bureaus should support pollution lawsuits brought by the public and provide them with pollution-monitoring data.”

China’s disclosure failings are not solely caused by poor legislation, said Wang Canfa. The deeper problem is that institutional reform and social development are not yet sufficiently advanced. But there is hope: he used the example of Shanghai resident Xu Taisheng to encourage people to be more determined in pursuing information. Xu spent three years applying for the environmental impact assessment for a Baogang Steel project to be made public, receiving 13 judgements in the process. He applied, reapplied, sued, appealed, appealed again, appealed again, petitioned and then finally appealed to the Supreme People’s Court. In the end, he got the information he wanted – and financial compensation.

According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s working report, in 2010, 226 applications for disclosure of information were received – an increase of more than 200% on the previous year.


Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage image from Greenpeace

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default thumb avatar
yingyingz

信息公开在中国

其实不止是环境信息,其他方面的信息公开在中国也都是寸步难行的。南方周末曾经做过一个调查,向中国十多个省的环保部门索取本应公开的环境信息,得到的回应各不相同。基本上各省的环保部门也很少按照《信息公开条例》的要求公布相应的信息,被记者致函询问的时候,有的根本不理睬,有的态度非常冷淡,只有一两家环保部门做了比较积极的回应。总之,就像人们说的那样,在中国,信息公开牵涉到的利益相关者太多,而且不能拿到台面上的事情也太多,所以这方面的工作就很难开展下去。

Information disclosure in China

Atually,not only environment-related information but also information of other aspects can hardly get off the ground in China at the moment. The South Weekly conducted a survey in which environmental information was sought from environmental protection departments in over 10 provinces,receiving differing responses.Basically, environmental protection departments rarely disclosed relevent information in accordance with the information disclosure regulation. Some of them, when in response to the journalists' letter inquiry, turned their back on it, some aloof in manner. Only one or two of them reponded actively.In general, as it is said that information disclosure can hardly be pushed ahead in China because there are too many stakeholders involved and too much things kept under the table.

Default thumb avatar
zhouwei

信息公开需要各方的努力

信息公开的想法本身是好的。但实行的时候总是会受到各方利益的阻挠。看来推动社会进步,需要公众、媒体、学者、政府各方的努力。毕竟,社会现实是各方博弈的结果。

Efforts from all sides required in disclosing information

It is an initially good idea to disclose information.However,when carried out, it is always confronted with resistance from all interests.It seems that the promotion of socail progress requires efforts from public, medias, scholars as well as governments. After all, social reality is the result of game of all parties.