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Environmental Justice in China: Paradox or Possibility?

Feb 08, 2021
  • Mikaila Smith

    J.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago Law School

China faces some of the most significant environmental problems in the world. Issues range from life-threatening air and water pollution to improper toxic waste disposal, and an energy system saturated by coal consumption. At the same time, China’s rapid economic development and growth exacerbates existing societal divisions and marginalization: a 2018 assessment by the International Monetary Fund found that China’s income inequality ranks among the highest in the world. 

This convergence between environmental degradation and socioeconomic inequality lends an urgent nature to discussions about environmental justice in China. In the last decade, China’s legal systems have become a particularly contested arena within which to pursue solutions and change the behavior of agents responsible for environmental degradation. 

Pundits point to increasingly robust environmental laws and successful lawsuits against polluters as evidence that China will continue to enhance law-based environmental governance. However, critics say that many of the hailed changes are primarily symbolic and have little potential to actually result in change, given China’s constrained political environment

For example, some observers noted with excitement a provision in China’s 2015 Environmental Protection Law that allows non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to bring public interest lawsuits against polluting agents. But there are major barriers to bringing—much less winning—such suits, including the onerous requirements that limit the growth and operations of Chinese NGOs and the still-undeveloped nature of judicial independence in China. These factors prompt scholars such as Stanley Lubman to conclude that, ultimately, meaningful progress to control pollution through the law will occur “if, and only if, the government of Xi Jinping allows it.” 

Still, some landmark environmental lawsuits have been won in the last decade. In the 2014 Taizhou case, a court in Jiangsu Province imposed a fine of RMB 160 million (about US$25 million) on six enterprises found liable for the disposal of 26,000 metric tons of acid waste into domestic rivers. And in 2015, a glass-making factory in Shandong Province was forced to pay RMB 20 million (US$3 million) in compensation for failing to comply with regulations around the emission of gas. This case marked the first successful lawsuit focused on air pollution. 

In 2017, eight companies paid RMB 575 million (US$89 million) into a court-ordered environmental repair and restoration fund for dumping untreated industrial wastewater in the Tengger Desert. This case was also significant because it involved a ruling by the Supreme People’s Court that more leniently interpreted the qualification requirements for NGOs to bring suits under the 2015 Environmental Protection Law, a move that was seen to be paving the way for future suits.  

More recently, commentators have noted a rise in environmental lawsuits brought by Chinese prosecutors against government agencies. This move was encouraged by President Xi’s government and comes from 2017 amendments to China’s Civil Procedure Law and Administrative Procedure Law. In 2018, prosecutors brought some 48,000 public interest environmental lawsuits. 

Remarkably, around 90% of these cases involved suing government agencies, and 94% of those government agencies enacted the sought-after remedies in the pre-litigation proceedings, based only on a warning of pending litigation from prosecutors. Some believe this points to the possibility of future growth and success, as this lean and efficient model of litigation (or, rather, lack of litigation) would not overtax China’s legal infrastructure. 

Debates over the significance of these developments in the context of environmental justice must be situated within the appropriate cultural and political context. Bryan Tilt observes that all-too-often, Western observers see a relative lack of political engagement and public protest as evidence that Chinese people are more focused on economic development than they are on addressing pollution, or that “even if people did care about pollution, public opinion doesn’t matter very much” in the context of an authoritarian government. While the factors that operate to constrain progress on environmental issues in China are of course significant, they deserve to be evaluated on their own terms

Within this dialogue, scholars like Jingjing Liu observe that the phrase “environmental justice” must be adapted for the Chinese context. The term ‘environmental justice’ originated in the U.S. in the 1990s as part of a movement that sought to draw attention to the disparate presence of toxic waste and pollution in low-income areas predominantly inhabited by people of color. Liu notes that, by contrast, in China there is “no systematic evidence suggesting, from a microcosmic view” that the concentration of pollution is intrinsically tied to race (China is home to 55 ethnic minority groups) or income level. Liu’s work suggests that when analyzing the future of efforts to improve environmental issues in China, skeptics and hopefuls alike would do well to operate within a framework of “environmental justice with Chinese characteristics.”

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