When I tell people in the US that I practice (within the parameters of the regulations set by the MOJ for registered foreign lawyers) environmental law in China, some bonehead always says “That must be easy — China doesn’t have any environmental laws, does it?” Oh to have been blessed with the comedic touch. Lest you be tempted to file this bon mot away for future use, let me disabuse you of the notion that China lacks environmental laws. There is a whole raft of them from the standard air and water pollution laws to grassland preservation and desert prevention laws. There are also several Constitutional provisions which relate to the environment. Out of the goodness of my heart, I will be posting English translations of China’s environmental laws in the “Laws & Regulations” section of the sidebar to the right.
The overarching law is the Environmental Protection Law. It was the first comprehensive environmental statute passed in China (a “trial version” was enacted in 1979, and a “final” version in 1989). Following this enactment, China began to adopt media specific, “command-and-control” environmental laws similar in name (if not detail) to the major US environmental laws; thus, China has a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act, a Solid Waste Act.
Well, I could go on . . . and I will, after all that’s what this blog is about, but let me first take us back to the dawn of China’s environmental age, its Silent Spring, its Cuyahoga River fire. China’s environmental wake-up call was placed by a couple of bad fish at a Beijing market in 1972. Here’s the story from Green Action in China (pp. 5-7), an official publication of China’s Foreign Language Press:
In March 1972, some Beijing residents reported food poisoning symptoms such as weakness, headache, stomach-ache and nausea after eating fish bought from a Beijing market. The health department immediately reported this to the State Council. Premier Zhou Enlai instructed the case be investigated.
The State Planning Commission and the State Reconstruction Commission immediately set out to investigate. It was established that fish from the Guanting Reservoir, in Hebei Province, were contaminated . . . . An investigation group headed by Comrade Wan Li was set up to study and then control the pollution. . . . After more than a decade’s hard work, pollution of the Guanting Reservoir was brought under control. This, the first pollution control project in the history of the People’s Republic of China, provided crucial experience for the country’s later environmental endeavors.
Now that’s one inspiring story! In China, every one of the hundreds or thousands of food poisoning cases occurring every day are apparently reported directly to the Premier; he, in turn, routinely issues orders that no stone be left unturned in getting to the bottom each incident. Had I known this top level concern for the food-induced tummy ache, I would have reported to Premier Wen the distress I suffered yesterday after eating a street vendor 油条.The skeptics among us may scoff. They may note that Nixon had come and gone the month before this incident and he probably gave the Chinese leadership a few tips on how to use the environment to political advantage, or they may suggest that it was a Mr. or Mrs. Mao who dined on the toxic bio-accumulator from Hebei Province (natch!) that galvanized the nation.
In any event, there is something poetic in the fact that Hebei Province and northeast Ohio share much in common. May the Cuyahoga River and the Guanting Reservoir remain forever sister symbols in the fight to preserve our environment!