Formally, there are a few ways in which Chinese citizens can participate in environmental decision-making. For one, they can take part in reviewing
environmental impact assessments for proposed large projects in their neighborhoods. As Chinese scholars have noted, however, there are
a number of limitations to this process: only a small percentage of projects are subjected to compulsory public participation; the timing and duration of engaging the public is short; the method
of selecting those who can participate is often biased; and the amount of information actually disclosed is often quite limited in an effort to prevent
Chinese citizens also have the right to engage the system through a formal complaint system: writing letters to local environmental protection bureaus
complaining of air, water, and waste-pollution. According to the 2010 Environmental Statistical Yearbook, in 2010, there were over 700,000 such complaints. During the 11th
Five-Year Plan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, itself,
received 300,000 petitions on environmental matters. But complaining is one thing -- getting something done about it is another. All told, there were only 980 administrative court cases about environmental
impact assessments and only thirty criminal cases from 2006 to 2010. It is estimated that not even 1 percent of environmental disputes are resolved in
Non-governmental organizations are an important force in pushing for transparency in China's environmental situation, but their success is limited. The
Institute for Public Environment and the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council have joined forces since 2009
to prod local officials to release the environmental data required by law, and publish an annual transparency ranking for 113 Chinese cities. Some local officials have gotten the message. One official from Hunan Province
People's Congress uses his Weibo account to "name and shame" polluters, leading one named company to put in place new environmental clean-up technology.
Many other officials, however, continue to ignore the NGOs' efforts.
Without effective political institutions, what is emerging in China at the local level is governance by crisis management. Local officials, petrified by
these mass protests, simply bow to the will of the demonstrators. While this may keep the peace in the short-term, it is not a recipe for good governance
over the longer-term. China need only look at the experience of Thailand, the Philippines, and South Korea to understand how failure to address people's
calls for greater participation in environmental decision-making may contribute to far greater political challenges for the ruling government.
This post appears courtesy of CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.