Thirty years have passed in the history of China's environmental protection management, from the first national environmental protection conference in 1973 to the elevation of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) from an administration in 2008, putting it among the major 27 ministries and commissions in the Cabinet.
This change in status of the environmental agency within the government structure has reflected the heightened concerns attached by central leadership on the "green drive" at a time when China is facing a deteriorating environment arising from an unsustainable economic development mode.
The past three decades was marked by rapid economic growth and development at the expense of the environment. The rapid deterioration of the nation's environment and the depletion of its natural resources are threatening the health of millions of people and posing a serious threat to the sustainability of economic growth.
Influenced by public calls to act on the severe air and water pollution problems, the central government has tightened its environmental policies and enforcement embodied in the "Scientific Outlook on Development" as well as the national Five-Year Plan to combat pollutants from 2006 to 2010.
Among Beijing's moves, the elevation of the environmental agency into a ministry is widely seen to be the most crucial step, in which the central government hopes to sharpen the watchdog's teeth.
However, changing the name of the administration does not guarantee results, as many insiders observed, because the environmental protection bureaus at provincial level and below are under the direct leadership of local governments, who are in charge of our personnel changes and funding. Therefore, it is not always practical to expect a local environmental protection bureau to work independently and monitor the government.
While the central government may have a strong will when it comes to the environmental protection, the lack of cooperation at the local level can be a big problem. Local governments lack both the incentives and the capacity to implement well-developed projects. High-level Chinese leaders often promise "clean water and clean air for everybody," but this simple-sounding goal is, in reality, not an easy job.
The overlapping administrative function of several departments is another problem. MEP needs the coordination of many departments like agricultural, forestry, water resources, among others. In the way, pressure on MEP comes from everywhere, as its move might touch vested interests of other departments.
Although elevation of the environmental protection administration might not be a cure-all, it has still sparked people's hope.
(China Daily October 22, 2008)