Environment law to take back seat at NPC meeting

Draft bill to prioritise economic growth as usual over much needed green reforms on mainland

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 February, 2013, 4:02pm


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When the National People's Congress (NPC) opens its annual meeting in Beijing next month, bold lawmaking is likely to take a back seat to the new leadership's caution as they focus on political stability.

That's unlike last year, when the revised Criminal Procedure Law was enacted by the congress after years of discussion. The amendments said police could not force suspects to incriminate themselves and excluded the use of forced confessions, such as those obtained through torture.

This year's session could have considered breakthrough amendments to the Environmental Protection Law. When the NPC Standing Committee started its first reading of the draft in 2011, environmental experts and advocates had high hopes that it would open a new chapter in tackling the mainland's chronic air pollution.

But after China's top legislators released the details of the amendments for comment in August last year, criticism flooded the internet.

Wang Jin, an environmental law professor at Peking University who has participated in legislative discussions on the draft, said many of his suggestions were not reflected in the amendments.

"The draft showed no intention to fight for a better environment, but stood on the same side as polluting companies," he said. "The Environmental Protection Law is being abolished rather than revised like this."

The draft showed no intention to fight for a better environment, but stood on the same side as polluting companies," The Environmental Protection Law is being abolished rather than revised like this

The mainland's first environment protection law was published in 1989 and the general consensus is that many of its provisions no longer address the country's enormous pollution problems, created during its rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. But Wang Canfa , an environmental law professor at China University of Political Science and Law, said the draft again gave priority to economic development rather than protecting the country's environment.

One example was that the draft said environmental authorities should consult economic regulation departments on their environmental protection plans before making final decisions, which reflected the old thinking that economic departments played a more important role than environmental ones.

"The environmental situation in China is getting tough," Wang Canfa said. "The pollution is now very serious, the surface water and the coastal waters around the nation are also polluted. The government has to react to the problems correctly."

Dozens of experts, including Wang Canfa and Wang Jin, co-signed an open letter to the NPC urging it to halt enactment of the amendments. They say some changes proposed even amount to backward steps.

"It is the most immature and disappointing environment protection law since the 1990s … nearly every revision is not do-able," the letter said.

The NPC has invited public comment, by post or e-mail, on selected draft laws since 2008. About 10,000 people made online suggestions last year on ways to improve the environment protection law, the NPC's official website shows.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection published an open letter on its website listing 34 suggested alterations to the draft and experts believe that all the criticism means the law is unlikely to be enacted next month.

Meanwhile, the NPC Standing Committee is also reviewing the draft of the country's first tourism law.

Currently there are only administrative regulations covering the industry, instead of an official law, and the draft aims to strengthen the legal responsibility of travel agencies and related businesses.

However, observers say the tourism law is less urgent than amendments to the Environmental Protection Law and stands very little chance of being tabled at the NPC meeting.

But while lawmaking appears well down the list of priorities for this year's annual session, law experts remain hopeful that China's incoming administration will make some changes once it is bedded in.

Communist Party general secretary and president-in waiting Xi Jinping has promised to strengthen the mainland's legal system and boost its credibility.

He Bing , vice-president of China University of Political Science and Law, said it was understandable for the new administration to be cautious early on, but the government had to improve legal protection for citizens soon.