Sepa's extra teeth a small step in the right direction, analysts say
The proposed elevation of the State Environmental Protection Administration to ministry status has been widely applauded inside and outside the Great Hall of the People as a big boost for the beleaguered watchdog and the country's uphill battle to clean its foul water and skies.
The move has followed growing calls at home and abroad in recent years for Sepa's elevation to a full ministry, which many have said would better represent the environmental view in national decisions.
The much-anticipated move would also grant the green watchdog equal footing with other ministries in the cabinet and give it much-needed teeth in dealing with development-minded local authorities and industrial polluters, according to mainland officials and analysts.
But the promotion of the top watchdog - falling short of overhauling the nation's fractured environmental system, which left power scattered among various government agencies - could hardly make a big difference in reversing widespread pollution and appalling degradation, they said.
'It is a step in the right direction,' said Wang Shucheng, a former water resources minister. 'It will give the green watchdog a bigger say in the State Council and help involve it in decisions at the state level.'
Apart from a bigger budget and more staff, the new environmental protection ministry is expected to see its power boosted modestly, according to Wu Xiaoqing, deputy chief of Sepa.
'The growing clout of the environmental authorities over the past decades has shown an increasing green awareness in the leadership.'
The environmental watchdog did not become a separate member of the State Council until 1987, when it split from the Ministry of Construction. It was upgraded to a ministerial-level administration in the last round of government restructuring in 1998.
'The fact that Sepa was the only administration in the State Council that got promoted this time highlights enormous government support for the environmental protection mission,' said Mr Wu.
Wang Canfa, an environmental law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, said the move would also give local green watchdogs more bite.
But the plan unveiled on Tuesday failed to provide details about how local environmental offices would be affected. Instead, the State Council document said 'apart from necessary changes requested by the party central in line with the government revamp', local governments could decide by themselves if a similar bureaucratic shake-up was needed.
According to Mr Wu, Beijing will release a separate directive that provides instructions on local government restructuring.
Environmental officials have often attributed the stalled campaigns to curb pollution and crack down on industrial polluters to rampant local resistance and that power is scattered across various departments and ministries.
Professor Wang said the increased clout would be far from enough for the watchdog to check local authorities' pursuit of economic growth, which often comes at the expense of the environment.
'The elevation will not automatically make Sepa's decision more powerful and effective at the grass-roots level, given the fact that local green watchdogs are predominantly controlled by their respective governments. It is just like a cat-and-mouse game,' he said, referring to the relationship between local governments and environmental offices.
Deputy Sepa director Pan Yue complained last week that the lack of legal support and administrative power had hampered the watchdog's efforts to block many large environmentally sensitive projects.
Another case in point is the much-criticised campaign to control water pollution. Sepa shared such water pollution control responsibilities with at least five other government agencies, including ministries of agriculture, construction and water resources and the State Oceanic Administration.
Some scholars and officials, including Mr Wu, have called for an environmental 'mega ministry' aimed at revamping the fractured system, combining scattered power and cutting bureaucratic overlap.
But the former water resources minister Mr Wang rejected the idea. 'It is not necessary, and it is impossible,' he said, noting that environmental protection goals could not be achieved until 'every government department is fully involved'.
'Rather than dreaming about a super ministry, Sepa should try to enlist support of other ministries to make real efforts to protect ecology.' Many experts also pointed out that the elevation of Sepa to a ministry would not bring an end to bureaucratic wrangling, an inherent problem with the overstaffed and inefficient government.