China's national lawmakers are debating to what extent the public should be allowed to participate in, and how much negotiating power the public should have, in environmental issues set by the government.
With increasing numbers of protests against controversial government projects in China, members of the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, the country's top legislature, on Thursday agreed that a draft amendment to the Environmental Protection Law should address rising public discontent.
"When the public has inadequate channels for expressing their concerns and protecting their interests, the existing laws will not work for environmental protection," lawmaker Xie Kechang said during the first reading of the draft amendment.
China's Environmental Protection Law was introduced in 1979 and has stood unchanged since it was officially enacted in 1989, when the country's economy started to boom by becoming the world's leading manufacturing hub.
As booming industries consume massive amounts of water, soil, minerals, labor and other resources, the public have less tolerance for, and more awareness of, hazardous pollution, which also led to the environmental protection agency being upgraded to a Cabinet-level organ in March 2008.
"The law should add an open and effective procedure for the public to participate in approving a government project that may arouse environmental concerns," Xie said.
The local government in the eastern city of Qidong last month canceled an industrial waste pipeline project hours after thousands of angry residents protested against the planned project.
The protest came on the heels of similar demonstrations against industrial projects in the southwestern city of Shifang in July and in the northeastern city of Dalian last year.
Xie, an expert in the coal chemical industry, suggested that supervision and constraints in the government's decision-making process should be preserved in the amendment.
Data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection showed that the number of mass demonstrations related to environmental concerns has increased at an annual rate of 30 percent.
Those protests, spurred by fears of environmental degradation, have stirred nationwide discontent and stoked calls for expanding citizens' rights and sufficiently consulting with local residents when assessing the environmental impact of proposed industrial projects.
China's existing laws do have rules requiring local governments to conduct environmental assessments before approving some projects as well as "encouraging individuals and institutions to participate in the assessment."
However, such rules have been powerless due to the absence of mandatory terms for governments to disclose assessment information.
Thus, a new term has been added to the draft amendment, asking the Ministry of Environmental Protection to release national environmental reports and major environmental information.
Individuals and organizations have the right to request environmental information from the government and its environmental protection agency at or above the county level. Such claims should be responded to within a set time limit, according to the draft amendment.
The draft amendment also introduces a nationwide environmental monitoring network and data system accessible to the public.
Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a member of the NPC Standing Committee, said the government's releasing of environmental information in line with the law will ensure people's rights to know and choose.
"If people know that the place they live has serious environmental pollution, they have an option to move at least," said Rita Fan, also the former president of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region.
She proposed that environmental information should be released regularly by local governments.
Wu Xiaoling, a member of the NPC Standing Committee and former vice chief of China's central bank, proposed that all government projects should not be approved before environmental assessments are carried out.
Wu also proposed that the amendment should adopt a current banking practice that sets environmental assessment as one of the premises for commercial banks to consider lending to enterprises or local governments.
According to Xie Kechang, China is still facing a worsening environmental situation. In the first half of this year, 192 Chinese cities saw acid rain and the levels of particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) increased sharply in the capital region, the Yangtze River Delta and other major economic hubs.
The average annual level of PM2.5 in the capital region, the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta, Shandong Peninsula and the Sichuan-Chongqing area is about 80 microgram per cubic meter, five to seven times the average level in the United States.