Enforcing China’s Environmental Law

L to R: Alex Wang, Benjamin van Rooij, Zhang Jingjing, and Jerome Cohen. (Asia Society)

NEW YORK - Three experts from the fields of academic research, NGO development, and Chinese litigation presented their perspectives on the policy challenges of environmental law enforcement in China at a talk held at the Asia Society.

Benjamin van Rooij, senior lecturer at The Van Vollenhoven Institute of Leiden University, Zhang Jingjing, director of litigation at the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, and Alex Wang, director of the China Environmental Law project at the National Resources Defense Council, also engaged in a debate during the discussion moderated by Jerome Cohen, co-director of the NYU Law School U.S.-Asia Law Institute.

For van Rooij, the main barrier to efficient environmental regulation is the lack of communication and accountability between the Chinese central government and local governments. In recent years, he said, the central government has embraced “coercion, rather than legal formalism to implement desired change.” Yet the question remains as to whether this method will produce consistent regulation or create more adversarial relationships between the government, government-favored companies and other private corporations.

Wang, on the other hand, stressed the need for a readjustment of the norms in environmental regulation. In particular, he emphasized the need for increased transparency and compliance between the government and the regulated. “The penalties for polluters are too low,” Wang said. “Even a modest-sized company would incorporate those fines in the cost of doing businesses.”

Zhang offered firsthand accounts of her experience litigating on behalf of pollution victims in China. Zhang’s cases target a clearly defined, single polluter (what she calls point-pollution cases). “Air pollution in Beijing is almost impossible to file litigation for since it is non-point pollution,” she said. “There are lots of potential polluters and we cannot identify a single defendant.” For Zhang, winning a modest compensation for her clients is considered a victory, regardless of the court’s final verdict, illustrating the difficulties of strengthening the role of the judiciary and lawyers in improving environmental regulation enforcement.

Listen to the complete program (1 hr, 37 min.)