U.S. Lawyers Foster Environmental Change in China

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - Public participation and China may not appear to go hand-in-hand, but a project aimed at furthering the understanding of environmental compliance in the world's most populous nation may be sowing the seeds of change.

On January 1, 2003, a law providing public access to information and enabling public participation in environmental governance will enter into effect in the Chinese city of Shenyang.

Shenyang

The northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang (Photo courtesy Int'l. Council for Local Environmental Initiatives)
It is the first law of its type to be passed in China, and it is the major success of a year long project coordinated by the American Bar Association's Asia Law Initiative and China's Center for Environmental Education and Communications (CEEC). The CEEC is part of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA).

Initial fears that the Chinese central government might object to the initiative were unfounded, according to Gordon Davis, China liaison for the ABA's Asia Law Initiative Council, which is based in Beijing. Davis and others gathered today in Washington at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to discuss the development and future of the project.

"The reaction of the central government was positive," Davis said. "We weren't sure what we'd get, but we got 100 percent support from the central government. It is too soon to tell if this will become a model, but we think it will."

The Environmental Governance in China project began early last year to provide stakeholders in three regional cities with training and education on environmental governance issues. After the formation of an advisory council to tailor the direction and goals of the project, Davis and his team coordinated training seminars in Shenyang, Wuhan and Chifeng. These seminars reached out to a broad target group of local and regional governmental officials, lawyers, academics, nongovernmental organizations and industry representatives.

China does not have an established system for its citizens to participate in environmental initiatives, nor does it have a national framework for environmental compliance.

Still, the Chinese government has begun to act on a number of serious environmental issues, including clean water, clean air and hazardous waste. The current five year plan, 2001-2005, calls for environmental investments of some US$85 billion, with provincial and local governments tapped to provide some 35 percent of the investment.

Interested parties are only now learning how to engage the government and the public on issues of environmental compliance, and the American Bar Association seeks to use its experience to shorten the learning curve.

Wuhan

The city of Wuhan (Photo credit unknown)
The seminar in the central Chinese city of Wuhan focused on the feasibility of a regional Internet database of environmental information. The local enthusiasm for this idea did not quite match the reality, Davis explained, but further work on the concept is continuing. Helping local officials, especially those from the Environment Protection Bureau (EPB), understand how to communicate environmental information as well as how to enforce regulations is a key to fostering change in China.

EBP officials are looking for "legal ways of doing their jobs," Davis said, adding that they face the additional challenges of balancing the pressures of the central government, industry and local politicians.

The Chinese system ultimately relies on local enforcement, according to Jia Feng, deputy director of the CEEC.

"SEPA has no financial support to implement local environmental laws and no enforcement power at the local level," said Feng, who has been the key Chinese official in the project.

In the Inner Mongolian city of Chifeng where coal is mined, the seminar focused on policy options to combat desertification and ecosystem degradation. These issues are of concern to many across China, as some 640 major cities face water shortages and a 1998 report indicated that some 85 percent of China's rivers exceed local pollution standards.

The project's coordinators plan to follow up the seminars and training sessions in Chifeng, Wuhan and Shenyang with a series of pilot programs that highlight various tools for enforcing Chinese environmental law.

China is slowly moving from the rule of authority to the rule of law, said Richard Ferris, partner and co-chair of the International Environmental Health and Safety section of the Washington based law firm Beveridge & Diamond. It will take time for some to come to grips with this shift, he said, but "initiatives that take root at the local level are often picked up at the national level."

The rest of the world can ill afford not to try and foster improved environmental compliance by the world's most populous country, Ferris added.

China has nine of the world's 10 most polluted cities, and with its economy growing at some 10 percent a year, its impact on the global environment will only increase.

"China's unique role in dictating how global environment initiatives proceed makes this project even more important," Ferris said.

But the project is nearing the end of its tenure and American Bar Association officials are scrambling to find further funding from the U.S. government. The project's first year was funded largely by some $385,000 from the U.S. State Department, but less than $100,000 has been secured for 2003, according to Brian Rohan, associate director of the ABA's Asia Law Initiative.

Chifeng

Government building in the Mongolian Chinese city of Chifeng. (Photo courtesy Government of China)
"Funding for year two is very much up in the air," said Rohan, who added that the American Bar Association is hoping for a 2003 total of $700,000, with the aim of expanding the project to additional cities. Funding is difficult, Rohan said, as many U.S. agencies are forbidden to fund projects in China.

Chinese and American representatives from the project pleaded for its continuation at today's conference. There is much work to be done, they say, and it would be a shame to let the past year's efforts go to waste.

"We've set up a good foundation for this project, and the Chinese audience is interested in these issues," Feng said. Chinese from all walks of life are becoming more engaged in environmental issues, he said.

"The general picture has changed quite a lot in the past five years," said Hongjun Zhang from Beveridge & Diamond.

Zhang credited China's participation in the World Trade Organization as a major factor in the country's increased acceptance of international experts and a further willingness to address environmental issues.

"People in China now consider the environment before they become a victim," Zhang said. "We've come quite a long way but there is still a long way to go."

Find more information on the ABA's Asia Law Initiative at: http://www.abanet.org/aba-asia/home.html