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Chinese Appeal for Improved Environmental Transparency

Located south of Jinling Township in east China's Shandong Province, the Qilu Chemical Industry Park is home to a number of major chemical plants.

Although the plants have brought significant tax revenues for government authorities, they have also sowed pollution worries among local residents.

"There are irritating smells in the air," said a resident surnamed Ma.

The poor disclosure of vital information remains a source of local complaints, as the local government is struggling to balance efforts to develop the economy and control pollution.

"The government has never made it clear just how much pollution is here or how harmful it is," Ma said.

Pollution has become a particularly thorny issue in China in recent years. Concerns about new industrial projects sparked three public protests in Sichuan, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces last year.

China's annual parliamentary sessions began on Sunday. Online polls done by media outlets for the sessions indicate that upgraded counter-pollution efforts and the protection of citizens' environmental rights are among the public's top concerns.

Many people have expressed hope that the parliamentary sessions will bring improvement regarding the government's disclosure of environmental information.

According to official documents effective from May 2008, environmental protection agencies and polluting enterprises should make key environmental information known to the public and thus offer the public a way to contribute to the country's pollution control efforts.

However, the reality is that for many Chinese, obtaining access to that information is not easy.

Beijing lawyer Dong Zhengwei wrote the Ministry of Environmental Protection in January to apply for the results of a national soil pollution survey to be released.

Last month, the ministry turned down Dong's request, saying the survey results were a "state secret."

"The figures have never been categorized by authorities as a state secret before," Dong said, hinting that the ministry's refusal had no legal grounding.

Some non-governmental organizations have experienced the same difficulties when seeking environmental information disclosures from government agencies.

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs is a Beijing-based NGO that has developed water and air pollution databases to monitor corporate environmental performance in China.

Wang Jingjing, deputy director of the institute, said the institute once asked some city authorities to release lists of local companies that have been punished for polluting.

"Such information actually falls under what the governments should be releasing regularly, but some city authorities just refused to provide it," he said.

Zhan Zhongle, a law professor at Peking University, said every citizen has the right to have such information, adding that the timely disclosure of information can help prevent rumors from spreading.

"It's wrong to sacrifice the environment and people's health simply for economic development," Zhan said, adding that that some local governments have failed to release relevant information or take effective measures to monitor corporate pollution control efforts.

Notable progress has been made by Chinese authorities to boost environmental transparency over the years, including the releasing of real-time air quality information in 74 cities from January this year. However, much more needs to be done in this regard, according to analysts.

"We are striving to promote ecological civilization and build a beautiful China -- a goal that can only be achieved through progress in all relevant sectors and aspects," Dong said.


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