China Launches Complaint Hotline for Pollution
In China, the mobile phone has become one of the most powerful tools citizens have to fight pollution. Today, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection is hoping to redirect citizen frustration to its own phones, launching a hotline to take complaints about pollution.
The hotline, 010-12369, will take calls about "emergency environment issues, cross-provincial pollution and other environmental issues that should be directly dealt with by the ministry," reported Xinhua.
Given the well-known difficulties the ministry has at enforcing laws and enabling activists in the countryside, will complaints delivered by phone be answered more effectively? And this is for emergency environment issues, eh? Could other countries call too?Imagine, for a moment, a Washington-Moscow hotline, but for greenhouse gases. The phones would be green of course, not red, and used only in the event of a major breakdown in climate change talks.
If this is going to be "one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations in the history of the world," as Congressman Ed Markey said recently, maybe a hotline wouldn't be such a bad idea?
New Method for Petitioning?
Coinciding with World Environment Day, the hotline launch comes a day after China quietly marked the 20th anniversary of the student crackdown at Tiananmen Square. Earlier this week, a court in southwest China's Yunnan Province sentenced three executives of a chemical company to three and four years in prison for their role in the arsenic pollution of a lake that cut off water supply to 26,000 people.
Could this become a template for other forms of complaints too, for instance, about official corruption or land seizures? I wonder if the hotline could supplement the current method of filing complaints: camping outside government offices in Beijing to petition officials in person, a practice that sometimes lands petitioners in secret jails.
Brighter Outlook for the MEP
The hotline is the latest in a series of recent improvements for the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Ministry has called for compulsory pollution insurance for companies as citizens ramp up lawsuits, sought stronger penalties for polluters, and, this week, indicated that tougher rules for air quality are on the way -- something I've argued is sorely needed.
But it's heartwarming to hear, as Charlie McElwee tells us, that MEP Minister Zhou Shengxian is speaking loudly, even if he still carries a small stick.
Meanwhile, pollution levels may be improving. Amidst concerns that China's slowdown and stimulus have added new burdens on the environment, the MEP announced today that China cut two key pollution measures in the first quarter of 2009: acid-rain causing sulphur dioxide fell 4.9 percent in the first three months of 2009 compared to the same period last year, while chemical oxygen demand (COD), used to gauge water pollution, fell 2.9 percent.
"Surface water pollution remains grim," said Zhang Lijun, Vice Minister for Environmental Protection. "In some cities, air pollution remains quite serious."
We can almost hear the phones ringing off the hook.