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By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING, April 24 China on Thursday passed
amendments to an environmental protection law imposing tougher
penalties on polluters in the most sweeping revisions to the law
in 25 years amid mounting public anger over pollution.
The much-anticipated amendments follow a two-year debate
among scholars, the government and state-owned enterprises over
changes to the environmental protection law.
The amendments enshrine environmental protection as the
overriding priority of the government, but fall short of calls
by non-governmental organisations to allow all such groups to
file lawsuits against polluters.
The amendments were passed by the Standing Committee of the
National People's Congress, China's largely rubberstamp
parliament, and take effect on Jan. 1, 2015.
They include provisions to help the government impose rules
on powerful industrial interests. In contrast, the environmental
legal code in the past was focused on growth, said legal
Xin Chunying, deputy director of the Legislative Affairs
Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People's
Congress, 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 newly declared
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 China's 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 would ensure that
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 ... that (they) have used a
professional document to talk about the disclosure of
environmental information and public participation. This, in
fact, establishes some of the public's basic environmental
The rules also impose an "ecological red line" that will
declare certain regions off-limits to polluting industry and
formalises a system by which local officials are assessed
according to their record on pollution, including meeting
The rules reflect rising concern about widespread
degradation of the environment. News of hazardous pollution in
air, food, soil and water have become common in recent years.
Pollution has triggered protests on several occasions.
The government moved to beef up the law because it wants "to
try and channel public dissatisfaction with environmental harms
away from mass protests and toward the more contained channels
of law", said Erin Ryan, an Oregon-based law professor at the
Lewis & Clark Law School, who has studied Chinese governance and
its environmental laws.
"The rule of law has always been a useful tool for
channeling public dissatisfaction away from more destructive
means of expression - peasants with pitchforks and the like,"
she said in emailed comments.
One of the most fiercely contested parts of the law was a
clause designed to prevent most environmental non-governmental
organisations 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.
"The function and role of public interest litigation is
firstly to supervise environmental violations and be an
important means for the public to monitor," said Yuan Jie, the
head of the office for administrative law of parliament's
legislative affairs commission.
(Additional reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Robert