Clean Air, Clear Processes? The Struggle over Air Pollution Law in the People's Republic of China

676_clean_air_5_03.pdf211 KB

Date Published:

Mar 1, 2001


As the People?s Republic of China (PRC or China) seeks to use law to address environmental problems, it faces daunting challenges, in terms both of the magnitude of environmental degradation it is experiencing and the capacity of its legal institutions. Pollution levels in the major cities in the PRC are among the highest on earth. Epidemiological studies indicate that the concentration of airborne particulates is two to five times the maximum level deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization. A noted World Bank study based on "conservative" assumptions estimates that as of the mid–1990s "urban air pollution costs the Chinese economy US$32.3 billion annually in premature deaths, morbidity, restricted activity, chronic bronchitis, and other heath effects." And new scholarly work suggests that the "health impacts fall disproportionately on women and children."

China?s lawmakers have not ignored these problems. The PRC has in recent years sought to enlist the law to address its environmental ills. In 1995 and then again in 2000, China undertook significant revisions of its principal air pollution law, while throughout the decade of the 1990s it promulgated discrete measures concerning coal production, acid rain, and associated matters. To date, these legal changes have at best had a minor impact on the Chinese environment, but as we know from Bruce Ackerman and William Hassler?s classic study of the making of air pollution law in the United States, "Clean Coal/Dirty Air," even in highly–developed legal systems, efforts through law to address such issues pose massive challenges.

This article examines the 1995 revision of the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law (the 1995 APPCL). The struggles attending that revision warrant our attention not only because of the gravity of China?s air pollution, but for the revealing window they provide onto Chinese legislative development more generally. Through it, we can better understand the inner workings of what is, under the Chinese constitution, the supreme organ of state, the National People's Congress (NPC); the interface of the NPC with other organs of state, national and sub–national; and ultimately, the relationship of the Chinese state to its people. This has much to tell us about the particular limitations that prevented the 1995 APPCL from achieving more, the difficulties confronting overall efforts to deploy law to improve the Chinese environment, the growing politicization of environmental matters, and the challenges that the Chinese state faces as it attempts both to represent popular interest in more transparent governmental institutions and also to deepen its engagement in the international community as it prepares to accede to the World Trade Organization.

Last updated on 03/27/2015