Laying the Foundations for a Greener China

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on November 9, 2007.
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Last week in America, The AssociatedPress ran a story on how the Californiawildfires were spewing millionsof tonnes of carbon dioxide into theatmosphere, and suggesting that theemissions could contribute to global warming.Most readers probably found the piecepretty harmless. But, if you were one of theunfortunate thousands whose houses hadactually burned to the ground, you probablycouldn't help wondering whether the mediawas missing the point.

Reporters straining for angles and bureaucratswith obscure national mandates,but little accountability to locals, often ignorethe important things — and the moreimportant environmental concerns. Nowhereis that truer than in mainland China,where the combination of a boomingmanufacturing sector and weak propertyrights is wreaking environmental havoc.

For example, parts of Tai Lake, China'sthird-largest freshwater lake, are still beautiful.But, after 25 years of unchecked industrialgrowth, pollution has become widespread.Small numbers of activists have protestedabout the ongoing contamination,and some have reportedly been fined, hadtheir properties seized or, in some cases,even been beaten and imprisoned.

"The state owns the water sources underthe current law, so I think it would be verydifficult for individual farmers withoutownership or use rights to the lake to bring aclaim," says Keliang Zhu, of the US-basedRural Development Institute, a non-profitorganisation of lawyers dedicated to helpingpeople in developing countries obtain legalrights to land. "Not to mention the difficultyof enforcing the judgment, if they ever get afavourable one from the court."

The announcement last week that theMinistry of Commerce would join the weakState Environmental Protection Administrationin enforcing environmental regulationsis good news. But between the concernsof local residents and those of massivemanufacturing operations, the governmentis clear where it stands. The locals have littlehope of restraining businesses' excesses.

"Only the collective villages, or the villagegroups, are the legal owners of the land. Thatgives the farmers a significant disadvantageif their land suffers pollution in some way,"added Mr Zhu.

In the US, developments like that aroundTai Lake would lead to a local backlash,campaigns and media attention. Propertyowners could band together and pursueclass-action lawsuits against the companiespolluting their land and water sources. It'shard to do that, however, when you don'thave paper contracts or certificates to proveyou own the properties being polluted.

In August, the State Council approved aplan to issue land-rights documentation to90 per cent of farm households by the end ofthe year. But that's an extraordinarily ambitiousgoal, and without proof of ownership,farmers have little recourse. Beijing hasbeen slow to acknowledge the extent of thepollution around Tai Lake, but lately it hasbegun using the internet to encourage localand grass-roots responses to the most egregiouscases. Contamination has grown sopervasive that the government needs eyesand ears on the ground.

But for years, Beijing and businesseshave worked hand in hand to build manufacturingfacilities and there are endlessnumbers of foreign companies trying toreap the benefits. The government remains,at best, capricious in its enforcement efforts.

In the US, homeowners who lost theirhouses to the California wildfires receivedinsurance payments, and no doubt manywill rebuild their houses. Whatever thecause of property destruction, preventingand hedging against it requires the right incentives.It requires co-ordinating responsesin a manner that empowers the individualsaffected, rather than officials hundredsof kilometres away. It also requires clearlydefined property rights, and the ability toseek redress of grievances.

David Donadio

David Donadio is a writer and editor at the Cato Institute in Washington.