As half of President Bush’s cabinet descended on Beijing last week to talk trade problems (with a slight tinge of green), another symposium in town was considering how to deal with a graver symptom of China’s rapid rise. The first national conference on environmental policies and the legal system saw the announcement of a nationwide investigation into pollution and a call by a director of China’s EPA (SEPA) for the central government to impose compulsory pollution liability insurance for polluting industries. According to the official, the number of public complaints and protests over pollution incidents had increased at an annual rate of 30 percent in recent years mainly due to slack law enforcement. SEPA’s measure of Green GDP (which has lately run into some opposition from local governments, who are ever hungry for short-term profit) shows that pollution caused losses of 511.8 billion yuan (US$65.4 billion) in 2004, or 3.05 percent of the gross domestic product that year. The liability insurance also reflects the increasing phenomenon in China of lawsuits over pollution. As citizens have grown better off—if not healthier (see the UN’s recent report on pollution in Asian cities)— and the government turned slightly greener, lawsuits directed at heavy polluters have proliferated. Wang Canfa’s Legal Center for Pollution Victims, recently profiled in Newsweek, has been making waves for nearly a decade and, says Wang, "We win a lot more than we lose now." Every year, 2,000 lawsuits against polluters are filed in China. But lawsuits and compulsory insurance will have little impact on the behavior of big polluters without the help of government, a culture of corporate responsibility and, as environmental minister Pan Yue has pointed out, increased public participation. The Chinese legal system is still largely cool to the public interest when it comes to environmental issues; for instance, class action lawsuits are prohibited. And currently the fine for companies caught polluting is capped at 200,000 yuan (US$25,557.5), no matter the seriousness or duration of the pollution. That's a small price to pay for quite an expensive problem.
As Pan Yue writes,
Frequently we hear people say that Chinese living standards are too low and that the most urgent thing is to develop the economy. They hold that environmental protection should be an issue of secondary importance. But in fact, China is the last country that can hold this view. The country has too many people and few natural resources; China does not have the capacity to take on this burden. The sustainable development model is the only model of development for China. We must set in place a series of practical policies and regulations, call on citizens to participate in the environmental protection movement and strengthen our democratic and legal systems. Otherwise, sustainable development will become a mere slogan.: : China Daily