Man-made waterfall
The environmental protection agency in the central government, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), was previously responsible for the prevention and control of air pollution. Greenhouse gas emissions control, climate change, and energy management, were the responsibility of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). In April 2018 a new Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) was established. The new MEE absorbed the environmental protection functions of the former MEP and several other central government departments, as well as the pollution-related functions of the NDRC. [Source: Laney Zhang, Foreign Law Specialist, Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Reports, June 2018 ]

Beijing is increasingly accepting the fact that China has some serious environmental problems and something has to be done before it is too late. Leaders frequently make public statements about China’s environmental problems; and more laws and policy changes are being pushed forward that address these problems.A system of pollution control programs and institutional networks for environmental protection have been implemented at the national and local levels. To combat urban and industrial pollution control, China began emphasizing river basin management, greater use of economic incentives, and increased use of public information campaigns in the 2000s. Coastal zone management has been introduced, and energy conservation efforts and the development of renewable sources of energy have been expanded. Many cities and local government have tackled vehicle emissions through the regulation of automobile allowed on the roads, public transport initiatives and phasing out of polluting fuels. [Source: Robert Guang Tian and Camilla Hong Wang, Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, Gale Group Inc., 2002]

The State Environmental Protection Laboratory trains people to be professional noses capable of sniffing out pollutants. One official at the lab told the Time of London, “The work is quite unpleasant. We have to stay in the lab smelling those awful gases, repeatedly...Our equipment can analyze the density of particular gases accurately but with mixed gases they are not reliable...and it can not tell the effects on humans.”

Websites and Sources: China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection (MEP) EIN News Service’s China Environment News Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) ; ; China Environmental News Blog (last post 2011) ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) ; Greenpeace East Asia ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles ; International Fund for China’s Environment .

History of Chinese Government and the Environment

Mao Zedong believed that “man must conquer nature” rather than live in harmony with it. After the Communists came to power in 1949, large dams and irrigation projects were undertaken, lakes were drained, hillsides were converted into fields all with little concern for the environment. Protecting the environment was not a high priority. Increasing the output of heavy industry and building massive irrigation projects were regarded as more important than clean air and water. Most waste-water treatment plants worked poorly; outdated metal-working factories emitted thick toxic air pollution; and the old Soviet-made nuclear power plants were unsafe.

Since the Deng reforms in the late 1970s, Chinese have been oriented towards development and making money. Although environmental concerns are given a higher priority than they were they are still secondary to economic growth. Environmental laws were established in 1979 and have been largely ignored. Jiang Zemin, Chinese president in the late 1990s and early 2000s, put his support behind certain environmental causes but put more emphasiz on industrialization and economic growth.

Hu Jintao (President of China from 2003 to 2013) started his career working for Sinohydro, the world's biggest dam builder. His "scientific development" policy of recognised the challenges posed by climate change and the investment opportunities of renewable energy. During his tenure China was much less successful curbing pollution and the dirty side-effects of industrial development. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, February 4, 2011]

The 10th Five-Year Plan, China (2001-2005) set the goal of reducing total emissions by 10 percent. In 2005, China joined the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development, which brings industries and governments together to implement strategies that reduce pollution and address climate change.In a speech in March 2007 Wen Jibao (Premier of China from 2003 to 2013) said that improving environmental protection a top priority. Beijing in particular is investing heavily in pollution control as part of its campaign to host a successful Olympiad in 2008. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale, 2008]

Patti Waldmeir, Leslie Hook and Jamil Anderlini wrote in the Financial Times, “When Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao came into office in 2002, one of the first big domestic crises they faced was a toxic chemical spill on the Songhua river in northern China that contaminated the water supply for millions of people. Since then environmental disasters – and related public protests – have continued. As a result Wen and Hu have put environmental protection higher on the agenda than any of their predecessors. But environmental degradation has worsened under their watch and remains one of the key sources of social instability. “The problem is we still have an opaque environmental decision-making system that is not really open to the public,” says Ma Jun, an environment expert and head of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs. [Source: Patti Waldmeir, Leslie Hook and Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times, October 29, 2012]

In March 2008, the Chinese government created a special ministry, the new Environmental Protection Agency, to tackle China’s environmental problems. Environmental groups welcomes the move but said for the ministry to really make a difference it needed tougher powers to enforce its mandate. A good chunk of the $584 billion stimulus package launched to help the economy in global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 went to improve polluting and energy-intensive industries but an even larger chunk went to infrastructure and building projects that need lots of cement and metals that require lots of energy to produce.

Chinese EPA

The Ministry of Ecology and Environment, formerly the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People's Republic of China, and prior to 2008 known as the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), is a department of the State Council of the People's Republic of China. It superseded the MEP in 2018.

For a long time SEPA was the government body that dealt with environmental issues. In the 2000s It was small and had limited authority, with 200 employees compared to 18,000 at the EPA in the United States. It was very weak and powerless in going after polluters protected by local governments. In March 2008, the environmental government agency was given ministry status and power to punish polluters.

Founded as an agency 1998, SEPA was upgraded to a ministry in 2007 but fought an uphill battle for money and power. Reuters in reported in 2011: “The government has made growth a priority, worried that unemployment would lead to unrest. But recently the ministry had deployed a satellite that can detect illegal development and use the agency hopes to use data it has collected to put pressure on local governments to stop the work." At that time the ministry had more power to influence officials’ prospects for promotions because environmental compliance became part of their performance evaluation. [Source: Ian Johnson, Reuters, June 3, 2011]

There was gradual change to give the ministry more power. “They’re now a serious player as to what happens and where and to what standards,” Deborah Seligsohn, a senior fellow with the World Resources Institute told Reuters. “You’re seeing a steady trajectory where they’re having more and more impact.” Recently, the ministry canceled a high-speed train line that had not obtained its approval. Last year, Mr. Li said, the ministry turned down 59 projects worth $15 billion that had not obtained its approval. Well-connected ministries were once able to bypass the environmental ministry, but now, Mr. Li said, it had set up “an impassable firewall” to block harmful projects.”

Environmental Policy in China

The government spent $10 billion a year on environmental protection in the early 2000s or about 1.3 percent of GDP. The five year plan for 2006-2010 called for a reduction of industrial pollution by one tenth and spending on environmental protection to increase to $35 billion from 2006 to 2010.

Chinese environmental policy is largely guided by the principal: “growth first, then the environment.” It often seems the faster China grows and the more prosperous it becomes the more polluted and degraded it gets. Impressive economic gains have been blighted by environmental problems that verge on catastrophic. Wei Weixian, an energy professor at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, told Reuter, “Safeguarding economic growth is the absolute No. 1 priority of the authorities...The government might have to turn a blind eye to the rebound of some polluting heavy industries.”

The government mainly tackles environmental problems by issuing command quotas and launching tree planting campaigns. It still lacks an effective system of incentives to persuade polluters to install emissions-control equipment and it fails to impose serious fines on violators. Even factories that have pollution-reducing technology often don’t use it in order to cut costs or they don’t use it correctly, limiting its life span of the equipment and sometimes risking accidents.

The government sets targets for improving the environment. Most of the targets are not met. China vowed to reduce major pollutants by 10 percent between 2006 and 2010, for example, but failed to meet its annual goal in 2006. The main reasons why are a lack of compliance on the local level and the fear of political fall out for raising the prices of water, electricity, oil and bank loans

One of the biggest changes in China’s environmental policy is the introduction of performance rating systems for officials that evaluate their performance on environmental protection as well as economic growth. in Guangdong Province factory owners have asked for a rollback on some environmental regulations that they complains makes them unable to compete with factories in Southeast Asia. Nationwide mangers under pressure to cut costs turn off scrubbers and dump waste rather than treat it to save money.

Some argue that China can tackle its environmental problem unless these is some kind of political change.

See Gas Guzzlers, Automobiles, Transportation, Government and Public Services

20080318-Huangbaiyu Greencity China, Newsweek, nv news.jpg
Huangbaiyu, a green city China

Environmental Legislation in China

In the 2000s, China began strengthened its environmental legislation and made some progress in stemming environmental deterioration. To tackle pollution China has reduced subsides on fuel and gotten rid of tax breaks for heavy industry. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Beijing introduced new environmental legislation that among other things required developers to complete environmental impact studies. The efforts to address China’s environmental problems really began in earnest in 2004 when a top environmental official said, “If we continue on this path of traditional industrial civilization, there is no chance that we will have sustainable development.” Among other thing he encouraged more recycling, using more renewable energy sources and devoting more government funds to fighting pollution.

In January 2005, the Chinese government ordered a halt of construction on 30 power plants over environmental concerns, most for failing to complete environmental impact studies. In December 2005, Beijing announced “green” incentives and loans for industries, including mining, foreign and oil and gas exploration, that focused on environmentally-friendly projects. China introduced a range of consumption taxes in 2006 such as levies on gas-guzzling cars and disposable chopsticks that are aimed at improving the environment. In April 2006, SEPA ordered the clean up of 30 chemical and petroleum sites, some them owned by China’s largest companies, and stopped or postpone work on 44 projects, worth $18.7 billion, because they were deemed unsafe. In July 2010, the central government ordered cities to close inefficient factories by the following September. Even before that, in the previous three years, China had shut down more than a thousand older coal-fired power plants. During the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 heavy-polluting factories in dire straits financially were less likely to be given loans to stay afloat that factories that didn’t pollute so much.

Some environmental lawyers estimate that only 10 percent of environmental laws are enforced in China. In addition, clean up efforts are undermined by cheap capital and bureaucratic enthusiasm for wasteful development and industrial schemes. Unable to count on its bureaucracy, Beijing has tacitly but warily endorsed pressure put on polluters by the media and grassroots activists.

On the challenges in implementing of China's environmental policies, Dr. Lin Jiabin, the deputy director of the department of social development research at the state council, told The Guardian, “I think there are two major challenges. One is how we can create a transition in the public's awareness. One of the most effective measures available is to promote environmental education. Although today it is being introduced in school education, we need to make further efforts to promote it on an ongoing basis. Actually, my children are in the generation that received such an education, and their behavior is clearly different from their elders', such as their efforts to turn off the lights at home when not needed.” [Source: The Guardian, January 23, 2009]

“The other challenge is how we can make innovations in the resource price mechanism. We can say that current resource prices are kept down by price controls, which leads to wasteful use of resources. So it is important to change the pricing mechanism in order to reduce resource consumption.”

Effectiveness of China's Environmental Policy

According to the China Modernization Report 2007 — put out by academics at some of China’s top universities — China ranked 100th out of 117 countries in environmental protection, This was the same ranking it had three years earlier, leading one to conclude that not only is China’s ranking poor but is not improving or making progress. One of the main goals of China’s 11th Five Year Plan was to reduce emissions of major pollutants by 10 percent between 2006 and 2010. As of 2007, those goals had not been reached but were close. COD (chemical oxygen demand), an indicator of water pollution, improved by 3 percent nd levels of sulfur dioxide, a major air pollutant, fell by 4.6 percent in 2007

Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute said there was a clear difference between China's record on pollution — where it lags far behind developed nations — and renewable technology, where it is ahead in many sectors. "In clean energy, China is busy setting themselves up as a world leader. If they meet their most ambitious targets for 2020, they'll have the most wind, the most nuclear and the most hydro," she said. "But China is still playing catch-up on pollution. The air quality in Beijing does not exactly feel like London or New York."

“Green technology and pollution controls should improve the quality of the air and water, but they do little to ease the bigger environmental threat from depleting wildlife, ecosystems and natural resources,” Watts wrote. “Each year northern China faces a shortfall of 40bn cubic meters of water, forcing ever deeper drilling into non-replenishable aquifers. To address this, Chinaplans to cap water use and double spending on water conservation projects.

A report by the OECD suggested 51 initiatives that China could make to improve its “deteriorating environmental conditions.” Among them is making local leaders more accountable for environmental damage and introducing market mechanism such as pollution charges to meet environmental targets. In China, some have called for the death penalty for the worst environmental crimes.

A new generation of animal and nature lovers is emerging in China but the rate of their emergence and the fact that are relatively powerless has limited the impact they have had. Meanwhile the environments continues to be squeezed and disrupted. Already China’s parks are overwhelmed by tourists and encroachment from factories, farmers and fishermen.

German Green Party member Joschka Fischer wrote “China will be the first country that, due to its sheer size and required GDP growth, is forced to pursue a “green” economic . Otherwise China would quickly reach its “limits to growth,” with disastrous and, as a result, political consequences.”

Local Government and the Environment in China

Many efforts to clean up China are hindered by local officials who worry about job losses of closed factories or are concerned about losing kickback and money they have invested in polluting factories. These officials fail to enforce environmental standards out of fear of adversely affecting business and, in some cases, own or partly own the most polluting factories. In any case the owners of polluting factories often have close ties with local government officials and form strong self -interest groups.

One environmental activist told Knight-Ridder newspaper, “The policies from the top are not carried out at the bottom. The (local) officials care only about development. They don’t care about water or air pollution.” Even in cities where there is a local environmental protection bureau, civil servants are often bullied by city officials who are their bosses. One environmental official told Knight Rider newspapers, “It’s so embarrassing that some of them even have to write anonymous letters to use to denounces local environmental problems.”

Elizabeth Economy, author of “The River Runs Black,” told the Washington Post, the problem is enforcement. “They have never had the bottom-up pressure that makes them change their practices, or the top-down mechanism for providing the right incentive to make it easy to do the right thing.”

In recent years banks have been given the right to deny loans to polluters; officials can make violators issue humiliating public apologies on television; and utility companies can raise rates for factories caught wasting resources.

In 2006, the central government environmental protection agency began investigating local officials suspected of submitting fake data on emissions of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide because if they didn’t sunmit such date they would have failed to meet clean air targets.

A local government effort to beautify Laoshou Mountain in Yunnan Province, which had be used for quarrying stone, was to spend $56,000 to spray green paint over several acres of rock.

20080318-electricpalmtrees pico poco.jpg
Electric palm trees

National Parks and Reserves in China

China has nearly 2,000 parks, reserves and other places that have various levels of protection, including 89 international-recognized sites. There is no equivalent of a National Park Service. National agencies don’t have the funds to oversee them. Many are provincially administered or managed by local government with spotty results. Conservation to some local authorities is cutting down the trees and building a gondola and concrete dragon to attract tourists.

Most reserves have a protected “core area” and an “outer area,” where local people are permitted to live and work. In some reserves the outer are is quite developed with fish farms, rice paddies, and various kinds of developments. Some wetlands areas have “wetland golf” and “vacation villa zones” and allow reeds to be harvested by trucks, leaving behind grass that birds don’t like and, according to legend, was introduced by Zhou Enlai, who asked expert to find a plant that increased the size of China.

In recent years China has established more nature reserves than any other country. A program was adopted in 1980 to establish 300 new reserves, with a total area of 96,000 square kilometers (37,065 square miles). In 2003, about 7.8 percent of the total land area of China was protected. The largest reserve, the Changbai Mountain Nature Reserve, in the northeast, covers 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles).. Others include the Wolong reserve in Sichuan Province, covering 2,000 square kilometers), famous for its giant pandas; the Dinghu Mountain reserve in Guangdong Province, with virtually untouched subtropical evergreen broadleaf monsoon forest; and the Nangun River area in Yunnan Province, with some China’s last tracts of tropical rain forest. There are 30 Ramsar wetland sites and several natural and mixed properties designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

In 2004, the State Forestry Administration announced it was going to establish 225 new wetlands reserves by 2010. Many of the wetlands would not only provide a much needed habitat for birds and wildlife they would also provide land for flood run off. The “wetland parks” set up in a former areas of reeds and swamps of the Yangtze Delta and largely devoid of bird life. They consist of dredged ponds, wooden promenades, painted flower patches, colored lights and fake boulders. One near Shanghai features Chinese pop music shows and has a military base nearby with a heavily used firing range.

Misuse and Privatization at China's National Parks

China's reserves are poorly policed and poaching and illegal logging remains a problem. According to New York Times “In some spots in China where nature still thrives, like the popular Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou alpine parks in Sichuan Province, conservation efforts have become secondary to moneymaking ventures by tourism concession companies. Such areas are also often threatened by industrial pollution and construction.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 10, 2015]

Some parks have been privatized. Huangshan Mountain is listed on the Shanghai stock exchange and is 51.5 percent owned by Chinese and foreign shareholders. Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius is managed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Economic Development Co., known mainly for running Disney-like theme parks in southern China. Part of the Great Wall is run by Beijing Enterprises Holding Ltd., which also makes wine and runs water treatment plants.

Supporters of privatization of parks point out the government doesn't have the money to properly run parks and their maintenance track record in the past has been spotty at best. When the government managed Huangshan, logging companies harvested trees in the park, the steams were polluted and according to one count 6,000 tons of trash was piled up on the 44 miles of paths through the park. Since the park has been privatized forests cover has increased from 60 to 86 percent. A staff of 525 attendants picks up trash.

Jessica Meyers wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Conservation goals at some parks have lost out to the drive for tourism, a valuable source of income for local governments. Ticket prices can top $30, two days’ wages for a rural migrant worker. At some locales, hordes trample scenic views, plastic bags drift downstream, and couples scratch their names in 300-year-old-trees.“A lot of Chinese parks are not about preservation, they’re about moneymaking,” said Guangyu Wang, a forestry expert at the University of British Columbia. “National parks in China are like theme parks.” “Guangyu recalled a recent trip to China, when he tried to see peach blossoms and instead spent four hours staring at cars stuck in traffic. “China has struggled with ecotourism. In 2009, a man in Yunnan province hunted and ate the last tiger in a nature preserve. A wetland park in Guangzhou last year installed lightning rods after two tourists were struck by lightning. [Source: Jessica Meyers, Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2016]

Creating American-Style National Parks in China

China has taken steps to make its national parks more like those in the U.S.. Jessica Meyers wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “China has no single agency responsible for managing its overcrowded, haphazard assortment of natural areas, places that are suddenly in demand by a growing middle class looking for refuge from polluted cities. For help, Chinese officials are turning to a system born out of similar conservation goals a century ago, an idea once labeled America’s best: its national parks.” In 2016, “China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the U.S. National Park Service signed a formal cooperation agreement. The Paulson Institute, a Chicago-based think tank, also has agreed to assist Chinese officials with a pilot project that spans nine provinces. “Our national parks are an important source of shared national pride and cultural identity,” Paulson Institute chairman and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said as his organization formalized the partnership in Beijing. He said the center will work with China to “help develop a comprehensive and effective system of protected areas.”[Source: Jessica Meyers, Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2016]

“China has set aside about 18 percent of its land for protection, compared to nearly 14 percent in the U.S. Both systems comprise a patchwork of parkland, made up of forests, wetlands and other scenic areas. The U.S. Department of the Interior manages most of America’s vast network in a clear, regulated manner. China’s thousands of national-level parks have overlapping administrations, inconsistent standards and competing interests.

“The latest push comes from the top. President Xi Jinping told top officials in 2013 that the country needed a “real national park system,” according to state media. Leaders want to project China’s new image as a climate-conscious global power. And they also recognize wealthier Chinese are exploring the world and desire similar experiences back home “Public awareness of nature conservation has increased, and the general public and decision-makers have really changed their philosophy,” said Zhu Chunquan, head of the China office for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Officials also hope increased domestic travel will act as a salve for the slowing economy. Tourism has doubled over the last four years, according to China’s tourism agency.

“But Chinese use parks differently than Americans do, and administrators aim to select aspects of the U.S. model rather than simply duplicate it. “The U.S. has done a really great job with environmental protection education that we would like to learn,” said Su Yang, research fellow at the Development Research Center of the State Council, China’s chief administrative body.

“Chinese generally keep their park visits short; few sites even allow camping. And while family trips are becoming more popular, many still opt for cheaper bus tours. “Chinese tourists mainly go for one day or a half-day to have a quick look around, not for one or two weeks to walk inside the reserve or to establish a personal relationship with nature,” Zhu said.

“The pilot projects look largely at management and funding, as officials weigh what role the central government should play in running the parks. U.S. national parks are publicly funded and rely only partially on entrance fees. But Chinese sites depend on revenue to sustain themselves, and officials sometimes use the income to cover other local government expenses. Chinese officials also must figure out how to balance the needs of communities that have lived in these regions for generations. “You can see a lot of man-made elements in Chinese parks, but if a tree falls in Yellowstone, they won’t [clean] it up,” said Wang, who spoke with awe of his trip years ago to the first U.S. national park.

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Last updated December 2013

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Last updated June 2022

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