A Structurally Chained China

Ella Genasci Smith ’15
Staff Writer

The environmental challenges China faces, such as depleted or contaminated water sources and air pollution so thick it shrouds buildings, have undoubtedly taken a toll on both the country’s economy and people’s health.

The World Bank estimates that pollution cleanup and excessive resource depletion could be costing the country a full nine percent of China’s robust 10 percent GDP growth.

But, perhaps even more critical than the pollution itself, are the underdeveloped legal and political structures that prevent the Chinese government from sufficiently remedying environmental pollution.

China’s lack of progress toward environmental protection, despite an extensive regulatory framework, stems primarily from its decades-long focus on economic growth to the exclusion of all else. Local officials have been judged not by how well they foster development but by how much they produce. This has led to the rampant and uncontrolled development that has cost China precious resources and the health of its population.

Partly, the issue is one of enforcement in a country the size of China, where corruption is endemic. Additionally, the weakness of enforcement perhaps can be attributed to the 1989 “responsibility system,” which transferred authority regarding environmental matters over to local officials.   

Other longstanding challenges within the Chinese political system, such as concerns over layoffs that might result from the closure of dirty plants and lack of independence from the judiciary, have hampered enforcement of environmental laws or any meaningful punitive response to violations.

In a clear example of the open challenges, last month, in March, roughly 16,000 dead pigs and 1,000 duck carcasses were found floating down the Huangpu River, which supplies water to roughly 23 million people in the bustling city of Shanghai.

The tagged pigs allegedly were thrown into the river for all to see after having tested positive for porcine cirovirus, a common swine virus that rendered the pigs unprofitable and possibly hazardous to humans, despite laws that forbid such actions. Examples such as this have reaffirmed the public’s wariness of the government’s ability to enforce the law.

The source of such problems can largely be attributed to the lack of incentive for compliance. According to the New York Times, fines for breaking environmental laws are often capped at $16,000 – a small fee compared to, for example, the much larger expense of upgrading equipment that would decrease harmful emissions. Additionally, many factories that have installed the proper filtration equipment only comply with regulations during periods of local government inspections, which are announced in advance.

Indeed, it is the fragmented authority within the Chinese Communist Party, between the central Beijing government and local officials, that gives governmental officials a lack of bite in enforcing environmental standards.

One step China might take toward solving its structural challenges would be to develop an independent judiciary. The current judicial system places party and national interests above those of the individual or the law, making it hard for ordinary citizens to seek and win redress from polluting factories.

Environmental courts already exist, but the judges are neither adequately trained nor given the freedom to act according to the letter of the law. Judgments in favor of the local citizenry are few and far between. Moreover, environmental health cases are often covered up or ignored due to the large compensation costs commonly associated with them.

Thus, the lack of a deterrent, both economically and legally, makes it relatively easy for industries to pollute, and challenging for the Beijing government to enforce compliance.

China must urgently resolve the flaws inherent in its political and legal systems before measures can be taken to address the country’s pressing environmental challenges.

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