Dirty Little Secrets Not So Secret Anymore in China

Date: 04-11-2006

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HONOLULU (Apr. 11) – Severe industrial waste dumping, serious factory spills, deadly water pollution. In the past, all were considered State secrets in China. The public had no right-to-know. The government would announce the incidents, if at all, only well after the fact, all in the name of maintaining a stable society. But, according to East-West Center senior fellow ZhongXiang Zhang, not anymore.

“China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) recently announced that all government departments must announce serious accidents that harm the environment within one hour or face criminal prosecution,” Zhang notes.

“The change in policy in Beijing came about due to a series of recent major environmental accidents including the Songhuajing River spill late last year in northern China,” Zhang points out. Adding, “That incident had unprecedented international implications as well as domestic social, economic and environmental ramifications.”

“Last year, Beijing changed its policy about disclosing environmental accidents when they occur. But, the criminalization of not following the new policy is a major step toward openness and transparency in the Chinese government,” according to Zhang.

He goes on to note, “Some environmental economists call disclosure strategies like this the third wave in pollution control policy.” Zhang adds, “The first two waves are legal regulations and market-based instruments.” He says the hope is that such strategies will motivate polluters to reduce emissions, “even in developing countries where regulatory infrastructures are insufficiently developed or are subjected to corruption.”

“In this context,” Zhang continues, “the SEPA’s decision is a welcome step in the right direction … this actually helps to enhance the reputation and authority of the government and the stability of the society.” The EWC senior fellow also notes “the timely disclosure of accidents enables a sharing of information and expertise and a mobilization of resources, thus helping to solve the problem caused by environmental accidents.”

Zhang wonders whether China’s new policy will be effective. He says, “It depends on a variety of factors. First SEPA has to clearly define what should be reported, what procedures should be adopted, and who should be held liable if an appropriate and timely incident report is not issued.” Zhang notes “disclosure is just the beginning. An even more challenging task is whether the government has a contingency plan or mechanism in place to effectively respond to accidents.”

He continues, “Dealing with the accidents involves not only coordinating the division of tasks among many government departments but also dealing with the interests of a variety of stakeholders.” Something Zhang says is beyond the SEPA’s ability. “It requires coordination at even higher levels of government and this poses a great challenge.”

Zhang says the Chinese government has not done well in the past in dealing with emergencies, be they political or environmental. “But, the government does learn from each incident. And, this new policy, if coupled with a flexible, effective contingency plan or mechanism, will enable the government to do a better job in dealing with environmental accidents in the future.”


ZhongXiang Zhang is a senior fellow in energy and environmental economics at the East-West Center in Honolulu. Dr. Zhang can be reached at (808)-944-7265 or via email at zhangz@eastwestcenter.org.

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