China Increases Court Cases against Polluters

According to the Wall Street Journal article, “China Sees Surge in Court Cases against Polluters,” written by Te-Ping Chen on March 12, 2015, Chinese courts heard almost nine times as many cases against polluters in 2014 than the year before, which Chen deems evidence of the government’s campaign to clean up China’s environment after years of lax enforcement.  Everyone has seen the photos of people wearing face masks on polluted days in major Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai, including provinces with high levels of pollution such as Hebei.  Chen indicates the increase in cases is a push from Beijing to tighten and enforce regulations and use other measures to deal with pollution that has left the country with impacted air, water, and soil.

In the article, Chen cites an annual report by the Supreme People’s Court, released March 12, in which courts concluded 16,000 cases related to environmental violations in 2014. That is 8.5 times more than the previous year, according to the government’s news agency, Xinhua. In addition, civil cases seeking damages from pollution rose slightly more than 50 percent to 3,331 cases, the agency said.

On January 1, 2015, the first new amendments to the country’s environmental protection law, the first in 25 years, came into effect, intending to increase powers for environmental authorities and provide harsher punishment for polluters.  According to Chen, the law creates a system in which polluters are fined on an accumulating basis for the number of days they are in violation, instead of one-off fines.

Although Chen indicates more civil cases including those involving farmers and residents have come to light, indicating an increased awareness of rights under Chinese environmental law.  This was confirmed by Jonathan Kaiman in an article for The Guardian on April 25, 2014, “China Strengthens Environmental Laws.”  The primary hurdle that remains in China is the gap between legislation and implementation.  In EHS Support’s experience, that means inconsistent enforcement of environmental laws.  What looks good on paper depends enforcement by local authority.

Regardless, Chen reports that a 2013 interpretation on handling environmental pollution cases issued by the high court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the national prosecutors’ office, made it easier to seek convictions for pollution, as verified by Cao Mingde, a professor at the China University of Politics and Law who specializes in environmental law.  And recently, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced it had punished several dozen agencies that assess environmental impact for violations that included falsified documentation.  In addition, on March 6, 2015, Ruby Lian and Polly Yam reported in a recent article for Reuters, “Chinese City Shuts Factories as Environmental Law Bites,” that several steel producers in Linyi, a city in a coastal Shandong province, were shut down apparently in connection to the enforcement of the environmental laws.

What does this mean for you?

According to Robert L. Falk and Jasmine Wee of Morrison & Foerster LLP in an article titled, “China’s New Environmental Protection Law,” and dated October 11, 2014 (Mondaq.com), although uncertain from its initial implementation, the new amendments may have implications for multinational corporations.  Corporations should align corporation strategy with government signals; address strategic alignment (i.e., aim to integrate local and global standards) and prepare for transparency and increased monitoring.

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