Policing Pollution in China

November 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

On May 28, six environmental officers in Guzhen county, Anhui Province—all appointees of the Ministry of Environmental Protection in Beijing–were suspended from their posts.  Their crime: they had visited a local Taiwan-owned manufacturer, Innova Rubber, three times during the month, to check that newly-installed equipment accorded with environmental standards and to request payment for overdue sewage fees.

So you’re asking, “where’s the crime in this?”  A little background is necessary.  Local environmental protection officers are appointed to their posts by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in Beijing.  Once at their posts, they come under the jurisdiction of officials of the local government.  Turns out that Guzhen local county officials didn’t share the investigative enthusiasm of the Beijing-appointed environmental protection officers. The county disciplinary department concluded that “inspecting a company three times in a month” had a deleterious effect on the county’s “economic development atmosphere ” (South China Morning Post, June 19, 2010).

What can we learn from this little-covered event?

Enforcing environmental standards in China may be a bigger challenge than setting them.  Why?  In part, because the environmental authorities appointed by Beijing come under the jurisdiction of officials in local government, whose interests frequently conflict with those of the environmental authorities.  Local officials tend to regard economic development as their highest priority—if for no other reason than that promoting economic growth weighs far more heavily in their job assessment than upholding environmental standards.

The Guzhen story argues for the need for Beijing to institute two major reforms: 1) give environmental officers more authority so that they are not subordinate to local government officials; and 2) take pollution control into greater account when grading the job performance of these local officials.

Given Beijing’s obsession with GDP, however, it’s hard to imagine that the measure of job success by local officials will be recalibrated anytime soon.

But, the Guzhen incident has an unexpected ending.  By late June the six environmental officers were reinstated.  The media had got hold of the story and the public outcry was such that local officials were pressed to reverse their decision.  This speaks to a critical point: in a country where NGOs are more constrained than elsewhere and have little wiggle room, a sympathetic, green media that keeps the public informed and their attention focused is essential to the long-term success of an environmental movement.

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