In Wake of Songhua Disaster, Environmentalists Divided Over Future of Environmental Protection in China

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The recent chemical spill on the Songhua River and resulting resignation of China's top environmental official Xie Zhenhua from leadership of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has brought much speculation about the future of Chinese environmental protection efforts. Interviews with two prominent environmentalists in Beijing reflect conflicting views on these recent developments.

Hu Kanping, a journalist for China Green Times, believes that Xie's resignation is a positive indication that the Chinese government is now taking major pollution events seriously. "Though he is not at primary fault for what happened, it shows an improving situation for government accountability in China. This resignation will likely be followed by more resignations and increasing accountability in corporate environmental responsibility. This means better industry performance and safer production and will likely expedite the government's resolution of environmental conflicts."

Wen Bo, Beijing Representative for Pacific Environment, concurs that "many local people actually think this pollution accident was a blessing in disguise" because it means that the government will finally have to take water pollution seriously. But he remains skeptical that the disaster will have any lasting impact on environmental protection efforts in China. "The Songhua accident is an emotional one.... It is a killing strip 100 kilometers long, affecting everything in its path. It has made a good story."

Wen notes that the sheer scale of the Songhua event, which threatened 3.8 million people and crossed regional and international boundaries, has made it impossible to ignore its likely ecological, social, and economic impacts—among them a decline in regional investment, greater public distrust of the local government, and a spike in health problems as the pollution contaminates both groundwater and the food supply. "But the sad fact is that there are other stories and other rivers with pollution ... much more significant than this one. This kind of disaster is not rare in China. People suffer from severe pollution in every region every day," Wen explains.

Rather than seeing a silver lining in the leadership change, Wen laments the loss of a strong environmental proponent, calling Xie's resignation "a pity." "He is a rare person at SEPA and also in the Chinese government to have a firm grasp of environmental issues, with a scientific background. Not many people have his expertise." Wen believes Xie has essentially become a scapegoat, and that his "offer" to resign was primarily a way for officials to show the public that they are taking the pollution seriously and intend to punish those responsible.

Hu, who has worked personally with Xie Zhenhua's replacement, Zhou Shengxian, through his involvement with China Green Times, is more hopeful that the leadership shift will bring new direction to SEPA—and new energy for environmental protection in China. Zhou "is a very honest worker," Hu explains. "He looks at the big picture while targeting specific problems and taking decisive action. I think with his leadership in SEPA, environmental protection will become a true field, with increased importance in the government and at the national level."

Whether SEPA's shift in leadership will help or hinder Chinese environmental protection remains to be seen. What is clear from the recent pollution incident and from discussions with both interviewees, however, is that there remains ample room for improvement. "Environmental conditions will continue to deteriorate in China unless fundamental changes are made in the government's development strategy," says Hu. "The reactive approaches of the past are not sufficient to address this challenge." Hu believes the Chinese government needs to be more proactive on environmental issues, in particular by strengthening the role of SEPA in policy formulation and execution.

Wen, too, believes that systemic problems in China's environmental administration are preventing much-needed change. "Xie Zhenhua has been trying hard for years to push for change, but it is not easy," he notes. According to Wen, the absence of integration among provincial environmental offices, and their lack of accountability to SEPA, has made it difficult for environmental bureaus at different government levels to collaborate effectively and to act as checks and balances. "What we really need to be focusing on now are the more systemic problems in China's environmental protection administration as a whole," Wen contends, adding that the government's strong pursuit of growth has impeded it from cracking down on polluting factories, and that the Chinese people remain too reluctant to fight for compensation for pollution-related cancers and other health effects.

Both Wen and Hu agree that a shift in overall development policy may be the only way to address these deep-seated environmental and social problems. "A lot of China's celebrated economic growth is made at the cost of human health," Wen explains, citing the government's reluctance to embrace any environmental goals that may stymie growth. "If people started organizing and claiming their environmental rights, then we wouldn't have such a high rate of GDP growth. Everyone at SEPA talks green—that is their business—but unless the economic sector takes initiative to make growth ecologically viable, then this talk is meaningless. These disasters will continue and will get worse."

While the Songhua accident alone is not likely to change the Chinese government's priorities in the long run, it does give activists like Wen Bo and Hu Kanping a high-profile event around which to organize their larger efforts to change the system. In the end, only the combined efforts of government, civil society, and industry will lead to effective protection of China's environment and human health.