1997: Should Chinese Environmental Quality Reports No Longer Be Kept Secret?

I just ran across a translation I did twenty years ago — it is an interview in Sanlian Shenghuo Weekly with NPC Environment Committee Chair Qu Geping  曲格平 [China Vitae: http://www.chinavitae.com/biography/Qu_Geping%7C1685   ]

Interesting to meditate upon on how times have changed and not changed!
This translation is also on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine copy of the reports and translations released on the U.S. Embassy Beijing website at the time.

Should Environmental Quality Reports No Longer Be Kept Secret?

Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan No. 3, 1997

[Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan is a semiweekly newsmagazine published in Beijing. This article was written before twenty-seven cities, beginning with Nanjing, began making weekly air pollution reports during 1997. Beijing began making weekly pollution reports on February 28, 1998.] pp. 26 – 27

by Mei Bing and Cai Fang

The Pollution All Around Us

Just how much pollution from industrial pollutants and other sources do we put into our lungs and bloodstream each day just by breathing? Just how pure is the water we drink each day? How high does water quality have to be for it to suitable for drinking? What grade of water should we not drink or even not touch? What standard of air and water purity do we need to be assured that it will not injure our health? These are things that everyone should know and indeed has a right to know. But for a wide range of reasons, there still lies a vague amorphous barrier between information about the environment and the public. Take the Chinese capital of Beijing as an example: to this day Beijing Municipality has never issued an environmental quality report. Given this situation, how can people talk about public participation in and supervision of environmental protection work?

With these questions in mind, we visited several departments responsible for environmental protection.

Background: The 1989 PRC Environmental Law stipulates “The departments with administrative responsibility for environmental protection of the State Council, each province, autonomous region and municipality directly subject to the central government should periodically publish reports on the environmental situation”.

Premier Li Peng in his speech to the Fourth Environmental Protection Working Conference also stressed public participation and supervision of environmental protection work.

[The article has a photograph of the long-broken down noise pollution display in front of the Fine Arts Museum.]

How Much Should People Know About Their Environment? Official: “I haven’t thought that over yet”

We called up a Beijing Municipality environmental protection official. “Hello, I am a journalist. I have some questions about the publication of Beijing Municipality Environmental Quality notices.”

“That is not a simple question since it is linked to social stability, the public image of Beijing and to other matters such as foreign affairs.”

“But don’t you think these is a trend towards public participation in and supervision of environmental protection work?”

“Yes, I recognize that there is such a trend and I think about these matters. But it just won’t work now.”

“So how much do you think people can be allowed to know today?”

“I haven’t thought that over yet.”

Three weeks later, we visited this official. He still held the same views he had presented on the telephone.

“Let me give you an example. Beijing Municipality has three seriously polluted rivers. We call them “The Three Roundworms”. Today, after a great deal of efforts, we have solved the pollution problems of two of these rivers. But we will not be able to solve the problem of the third river anytime soon. If we were to tell the people, “This river is very seriously polluted but we can’t be able to do anything about it.”, wouldn’t that be encouraging civil disorders?”

Many Environmental Protection Officials Hold Similar Views

One leading official of the Shanghai environmental monitoring said, “Deterioration or improvement in the environment doesn’t happen over just a year or two. If we were simply to release environmental information to the public, the disadvantages would outweigh the advantages. The environmental consciousness of people today is very week. Even if we sent the environmental quality notice to every home in Shanghai, many people wouldn’t read it. But maybe the people who did read it would cause some social unrest. They might say, “The government did a bad job. Why did you give us such bad air?”

An environmental protection official from northwestern China said, “The main objective of the undeveloped areas is poverty alleviation. With our human and financial resources so weak, we need to do something. Moreover, some environmental data is kept secret out of diplomatic necessity.”

One top official involved in environmental monitoring said, “Just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should do it. We should make public environmental quality information, be we need to think about the consequences. For example, Beijing does not release its environmental quality information out of concern for its public image. Moreover, we are developing our economy and attracting foreign investment. But foreign investors are more and more concerned about the environmental quality of the region in which they are investing. If we were to release the environmental quality notice, the foreign investor would cancel investment plans. This would result in unnecessary harm to China’s economic development and especially to the economic development of the coastal provinces.”

It was not too hard to pick out a theme from these conversations. The environment is bad, so we can’t release information about it. Just like the old saying, “the ugly wife is afraid to face her mother-in-law”, this situation will be hard to change.

Why Isn’t Shenyang Afraid to Show Its Ugly Face?

We were surprised to learn that Shenyang has been issuing wintertime sulfur dioxide forecasts for eight straight years. This is because the World Health Organization in 1988 named Shenyang as one of the world’s ten most polluted cities. Shenyang was near the top of the list, right after Milan, as the world’s second most polluted city. Didn’t Shenyang, by taking the initiative to broadcast these forecasts on Shenyang television, put its ugliness on display for the whole world to see?

Shenyang’s pollution is worst in the wintertime and especially so during winter mornings. Therefore Shenyang television from December through February broadcasts a sulfur dioxide pollution forecast for each district of the city between six and seven each morning. People going to work or working out can plan to avoid or spend less time in the more severely polluted districts of the city.

Gao Jizhong, once Vice Mayor of Shenyang in charge of environmental protection and now a Vice Chairman of a Liaoning Province Peoples’ Congress Committee, said “We took that initiative with that in mind. First of all, this is an important science and technology research project. The success of this project filled a gap in China’s knowledge about how to do air pollution forecasting. Secondly, the project also helped spread knowledge about environmental protection and to make people more aware of the importance of environmental protection. Thirdly, the project brought a lot of pressure to bear on the polluters. For example, the Shenyang Smeltery [Shenyang Yelianchan] “contributes” forty percent of Shenyang’s sulfur dioxide pollution. Our broadcasts made the plant more conscious of this.”

“When Shenyang took this initiative, weren’t you concerned that the foreigners would find out, and that foreign investment in Shenyang would be affected? “

“Shenyang’s pollution is written all over the face of the city. Even if you say nothing, people will still know about it. Shenyang’s air pollution problem is the result of many historical factors. If we want foreign merchants to trust us, we need to attack the problem at its root.”

“Were you concerned at the time that when the people of Shenyang realized just how serious pollution was that they would take revenge against the government?”

Chairman Gao laughed, saying “From 1988 to the present I have never heard of such an incident. Just the opposite. When we did a survey in 1989, we found that 94 percent of the people of Shenyang favored the air pollution forecasts.”

“But what if such an event did occur?”

He laughed again. “In my experience of many, many visits from groups of citizens, there is always a reason for it. People don’t stir things up for no reason at all. The Chinese people are very reasonable. If you are really taking care of the problem or can give them a clear explanation, they will be reasonable.”

We asked Shenyang City Environmental Protection Bureau chief Liu Tiesheng “Did the Shenyang air pollution forecasts have any connection with promoting public participation in an supervision of environmental work?”

Liu answered, “Today, informing the public about the true state of the environment is very important. For example, many people today are not concerned about the environment. Only if “a feeling of urgency” about something arises does the public feel the need to get involved in environmental matters. But we mustn’t go overboard and scare people.”

(We understand that Shenyang City is not satisfied with just reporting only the sulfur dioxide index. Shenyang has already started to reported forecasting air pollution using a multiple indicator air pollution index.)

When we were doing interviews in Shenyang, we found that Shenyang is the place with the fewest air pollution “taboos”. Now we understand why, of the seven Chinese cities studying air pollution forecasting, Shenyang is the only one that is getting the information out to the people in order to serve the people.

Visiting NPC Environment and Resources Committee Chairman Qu Geping “It is not a matter if we may or may not but of necessity”

We visited National People’s Congress Environment and Resources Committee Chairman Qu Geping to discuss what we had learned in our interviews.

Journalist: “Many people agree that China should through newspapers, television and other mass media make periodic reports to the Chinese people about the serious pollution problems facing China. What is your view about this?”

Qu Geping: “Let me make one thing clear at the outset. The State Environmental Reporting System required by law. It’s the law. It is a great step forward in building a mechanism by which the Chinese people can participate in and supervise the environmental protection of China.”

“State environmental reports must distinguish between more important and less important matters. Everything can’t be reported. With that in mind, I support more detailed, wider ranging reports and reports that are more easily accessible to the general public that introduce China’s environmental situation. For example, television has a greater impact and moves people more than other media. We could consider using television advertising to constantly publicize the environmental situation. Environmental conditions are different in each city. Especially in the more seriously polluted cities, pollution information must become part of the information people use in their daily lives. If each city or district broadcast environmental information about its own specific areas, the people would certainly become interested in environmental issues. So that the people don’t just read about but also understand the environmental situation, I suggest that we learn from the experience of some Western countries. When an environmental situation report is released, a version of the report more easily understandable by the average person should be released so that knowledge of environmental protection will spread widely.

“Today many people are worried that foreigners knowing about China’s environmental problems will affect China’s foreign relations. Although I can’t deny that there is some environmental information that is not suitable for publication, but that is a relatively small part of the information about China’s environment. These is no contradiction between releasing information on environmental quality while still protecting certain environmental information. I believe that saying that publishing environmental quality information can affect foreign investment is just the same as saying that we gain the trust of foreign business people by hiding the truth. Doing that would just be a kind of trickery. Acting in this way would harm China’s reputation and do great damage to the country. Some people say that if the people find out about the environmental situation they’ll either have not reaction at all or start a “rebellion”. This is lacking trust in the people. This is a people’s government. We should never forget that in our work. We must trust in the people and rely on the people. Giving the relatively poor characteristics and inadequate education of the Chinese people, the publication of environmental quality information is a good way to get people to take the initiative and involve themselves in environmental protection.”

“These are really just excuses. The real reason behind them is that the quality of the environment is all messed up and that some officials don’t want to tell the Chinese people that this is so.”

Journalist: “So do you think that if the environmental quality is poor, then it should not be reported?”

Qu Geping: “No, of course not. That would be a stupid policy. These people are just frightening themselves. In actual fact, the release of environmental quality reports helps environmental protection work.”

“Some countries use environmental problems to attack China. But in fact, China has made much praiseworthy progress in environmental protection over the past few years. China is a developing country. As such it has no special responsibility to take on more arduous environmental protection responsibilities. But China decided to turn away from the old road of developing first and cleaning up later. As a result China has already racked up some impressive results. For example, the “Three Barrier Forest Belts” project which has been recognized by foreign environmental protection experts as an “unbelievable” accomplishment. We can hold our heads high in the international arena. The more you try to hide things, the more people will think that you have something to be ashamed of. ”

“Chinese environmental protection work has had its accomplishments but also has its problems. The most important thing is how we handle those problems. Treating the Chinese people like “opponents in a guerrilla war” is no way to build trust in the government. If there are achievements, we want to tell people about them; but if there are difficulties we need to explain to the people about them. Environmental protection is the job of all society. It is not something the environmental protection authorities can do on their own. Every single victory in environmental protection in China has come about because of the broad support of the Chinese people. I’ll put it this way: the degree of popular participation in environmental protection work is an important indicator of the success or failure of environmental protection in that country.”

“Therefore the participation in and supervision of the public is necessary for the development of environmental protection in China. This is not of a matter of we might or we might not. It is a necessity. Letting the Chinese people know about the seriousness of China’s environmental situation is the first step.”

Journalist: “Then who is going to take this first step?”

Qu Geping: “This is something we all have to push forward.”

Clearly, the main obstacles to letting the Chinese people know about the environmental situation in China are the ideas of some of the leading officials of the departments responsible for environmental protection as well as local government leaders. In China an environmental enlightenment movement is needed to spread environmental consciousness amongst the Chinese people.

With the spreading and deepening of environmental consciousness, the time has already arrived for openly and honestly reporting the environmental situation to the Chinese people and for allowing people from all parts of society to supervise and participate in environmental protection. Only in this way can environmental protection become everybody’s business. Only in this way can the great potential of environmental protection work be released.

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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