Delegates to China's National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference this week, can hardly avoid the realisation that they are at a pivotal moment in China's growing environmental crisis: either the government acts with a rigour and effectiveness it has not shown to date, or China's long period of growth could crash into environmental buffers.
Since the NPC's last session a year ago, the country's environmental deterioration and concomitant public anger over air, water and soil contamination have reached unprecedented levels. So heated has the popular response become that newspapers such as the Global Times have been moved to comment that the government must face up to the crisis, if only to defuse the tensions that threaten both social stability and any relationship of trust between citizens and the government.
Things are bad. Even now, there is little sign of the drastic action required to make China's capital breathable again. As the nearly 3,000 delegates packed their bags for Beijing, what help can China's suffering citizens expect from the NPC?
The NPC tends to be dismissed internationally as just a rubber stamp parliament. Certainly, a parliament that meets for just two weeks once a year can hardly be held up as a leading example of vibrant government. But in China's shifting political and social landscape, the environmental crisis offers the NPC a real opportunity to bid for credibility with the people. It is not completely without power and, in this moment of public anger, it offers a platform for citizens' concerns to be raised.
For China's increasingly sophisticated civil society, the NPC and CPPCC do present a rare opportunity in China's closed political system to lobby power peacefully, constructively and legitimately. The NPC can be a channel for policy proposals: last year's session stimulated a flurry of such proposals from green organisations. The presence in the NPC and CPPCC of some people with a well-grounded understanding of the environmental crisis gives non-governmental organisations at worst a sympathetic hearing, and, at best, some action.
Last year, for instance, CPPCC member Wan Jie and NPC deputy Ding Liguo put forward a proposal to ban shark fin from official banquets. Wan Jie is both a businessman and a director of the Alxa SEE Ecological Association, an environmental protection organisation that, among other activities, produces policy papers for NPC and CPPCC members to try to influence government policy. A proposal was put forward and shark fin is currently off the official menus. This was undoubtedly more due to incoming president Xi Jinping's austerity drive, but Wan's CPPCC efforts were important both in making the case and preparing the ground.
In another example of civil society input, last year, the president of the Chengdu Bird Watching Society helped two NPC deputies format amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment Law that addressed major flaws in China's environmental governance. This kind of detailed policy work makes an important contribution to a difficult aspect of China's crisis - the implementation of laws and regulations. How much of an impact this work has depends on how seriously the government is obliged to take it.
Given the level of public anger over decades of failed promises on environmental protection, the government would be well advised to seize the opportunity that the NPC/CPPCC sessions present. Over the past decade, there have been important advances in the quality and capacity of China's environmental NGOs. There has also been some improvement in the communication of ideas between government and civil society.
However, this has rarely translated into the kind of trust and co-operation that would allow the government to benefit from the vigour and creativity that civil society can bring to solving environmental problems.
Life remains too precarious for most of China's NGOs, burdened as they are by restrictive legislation and a fear of official retaliation. A new law to regulate this sector has been promised for years. The NPC could do some good by setting up a robust framework in which environmental civil society could flourish.
China needs this because government alone cannot solve problems as huge as those China is facing.
Last year, NPC chairman Wu Bangguo promised that the NPC would "unwaveringly conserve energy and reduce emissions; strengthen the force of the law and policy guidance in energy conservation and emissions reduction; make sure key areas conserve energy, reduce emissions, and protect the ecological environment more effectively; resolutely close down backward production facilities; strictly control the haphazard expansion of energy-intensive and highly polluting industries; promote clean production; develop green industries and the circular economy; improve mechanisms to compensate for ecological damage; and make economic growth more sustainable". It's a fine set of commitments, but China's air, water and soil quality continue to deteriorate, and some parts of the government still believe that hiding information from the public - the details of soil contamination, for instance - is an acceptable policy response.
The NPC will confirm a new leadership that has already made promises of a more sustainable, less damaged China. The outgoing government started off with such promises too, and public disappointment over its failure to make good on them is at dangerously high levels.
If this cycle of disillusionment is not to deepen, the NPC must publicly and robustly become the environment's champion, insisting on its constitutional powers and offering the public a convincing political response to their frustrations.
In a speech late last year, Xi weighed in on the side of the constitution against the misuse of power that has, among other things, badly damaged China's environment. With that kind of backing at the top, NPC delegates have an opportunity to seize their constitutional position, insist on the power that it gives them, and make it real.
This year's sessions open against a background of calls for political reform and widespread frustration with China's creaking political machine. One positive reform move would be to strengthen the NPC and the CPPCC as sources of policy ideas, of powerful laws and, most importantly, of rigorous supervision of the implementation of those laws.
Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.net