Opinion / Commentary

Give law greater clout in battle against pollution
By Jiang Ping (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-07-31 05:32

On November 13, 2005, a blast at the Jilin Chemical Plant caused the leakage of tons of benzene, aniline and nitrobenzene into the Songhua River. This, in turn, threatened the health of millions of people living along its banks, whose drinking water comes from the river.

Water is indispensable to farming, industry, communications and people's everyday lives. This shows the vital importance of protecting water resources, which is an integral part of our environmental protection efforts.

The conflicting interests of localities in the upper and lower reaches of the Songhua River asserted themselves in this accident.

Under such circumstances, the enforcement of environmental laws needs to be strengthened, taking into account that we have already had a fairly complete set of environmental legislation in place.

Environmental matters, particularly those covering water resources, involve public and private rights, which sometimes conflict with each other.

Environmental protection, social security, compulsory education and healthcare undertakings, for example, fall under the category of public services. The development of China's market economy over the past three decades or so has created sharp gaps between the demand for and supply of such public services, while largely meeting the demand for private goods such as TV sets, cars and housing.

The insufficient supply of public services has triggered people's resentment. Who is supposed to supply such public services? The government is undoubtedly obliged to provide such products.

Clashes between the public and private rights find an expression in various forms. Water and air pollution caused by economic growth and urbanization, for instance, negatively impact people's lives and cause health problems. The government is expected to do something in this regard but, to our regret, relevant government departments have actually done little, which very much damages government credibility among the public.

It should be borne in mind that the legal awareness of the Chinese people is being heightened as the nation becomes increasingly law-governed.

The Chinese people's greater awareness of their legal rights automatically requires that their environmental rights are guaranteed. This, in turn, prompts the government to strengthen the law enforcement in this regard.

Besides law enforcement, more authority should be given to relevant government departments so that their responsibilities will cover wider areas, which facilitates the tackling of environmental problems. This is because environmental matters involve different sectors and localities. The polluted Songhua River, for example, flows through Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces in the northeast of the country.

In the past, the Yellow River and Huaihe River water conservation committees were set up to supervise water conservancy and flood-control tasks in the valleys of these two major rivers. These two specialized committees have made impressive accomplishments.

Tackling water pollution today requires the establishment of such specialized and co-ordinating organizations.

In addition, we need legislation covering specific river valleys or regions as a complement to existing environmental protection decrees, which are largely general in nature. For example, why should we not draw up a law tackling dust storms in North China and why should we not enact the decree involving the protection of water resources in the valley of the Songhua River?

In addition, individual economic entities, including State-owned enterprises, which are in many cases waste dischargers or cause serious pollution, should be held accountable for environmental problems, though addressing environmental pollution is largely the government's responsibility.

As a result, articles about the social obligations of companies and enterprises have been written into the Company Law, which is being revised.

Enterprises and companies should shoulder their own social responsibilities and obligations just as individual citizens do. And they should conduct themselves according to basic ethics and be self-disciplined. First and foremost, enterprises and companies must work to protect the environment.

Specific criteria involving economic entities' social responsibilities ought to be worked out, quantifying their obligations and setting up an evaluation system to gauge the fulfilment of their responsibilities in this regard.

Moreover, clear-cut provisions in environmental protection laws should ensure that polluters pay for any environmental damage they cause. But the existing environmental laws do not contain such clear-cut compensation articles.

A National People's Congress deputy suggested earlier this year that an environmental pollution compensation law should be enacted to hold the polluters responsible for pollution and make them pay for it. Subjecting polluters to disciplinary punishment is of course important, as was mandated in existing laws. But it is not enough. Financial compensation will help ensure they discipline themselves.

Despite the great losses resulting from last year's pollution of the Songhua River, no one has been made to pay. This is nothing but countenancing polluting.

The author is a professor from China University of Political Science and Law.

(China Daily 07/31/2006 page4)