The mainland yesterday passed amendments to an environmental protection law imposing tougher penalties on polluters in the most sweeping revisions to the code in 25 years.
The highly anticipated amendments follow a two-year debate among scholars, the government and state-owned enterprises over the changes. The revisions enshrine environmental protection as the overriding priority of the government, but limit which NGOs can play a role in monitoring polluters.
The amendments were passed by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, a largely rubberstamp body, and take effect on January 1. Xin Chunying, deputy director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee, told a news conference the law would deliver "a blow … to our country's harsh environmental realities".
The changes give legal backing to Beijing's war on pollution and formalise a pledge made last year to abandon a decades-old growth-at-all-costs economic model that has spoiled much of the water, air and soil.
Although enforcement is likely to be patchy, the law will give the Ministry of Environmental Protection the authority to take stronger punitive action, including shutting down and confiscating the assets of polluters.
It also ensures information on environmental monitoring and impact assessments are made public.
"On the whole, there are many bright spots," said Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, an independent environmental group.
"The biggest breakthrough is ... [they] have used an official document to talk about disclosure of environmental information and public participation. This, in fact, establishes some of the public's basic environmental rights."
The rules also impose an "ecological red line" that will declare certain regions off-limits to polluting industry and formalise a system by which local officials are assessed according to their record on pollution, including meeting targets.
"The new law is stricter than the previous version, but this is still not the fundamental solution," said Wang Canfa , an environment law professor with the China University of Political Science and Law.
"The key lies in enforcement. There were also penalties in the previous versions, but some law-enforcement bodies just ignored violations" because the polluters had ties with them, Wang added.
"China needs to devote more human and other resources for environmental protection organisations for this to work," said Yue Xin, a researcher with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.
One of the most fiercely contested parts of the law was a clause designed to prevent most environmental NGOs from filing lawsuits against polluters.
The first draft said lawsuits could only be filed via the government-affiliated All-China Environmental Federation, though the final version allows other government-registered organisations that have been operating for at least five years and are registered with the civil affairs departments of governments in certain cities to launch legal action.