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China’s “War Against Pollution”

Environmental protection will be a hot topic at this year’s annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) of China. Premier Li Keqiang’s government work report, given at the opening of the NPC on March 5, 2014, listed nine “Major Tasks for 2014,” including the goal of “building China into a beautiful homeland with a sound ecological environment.”[1] To that end, Li has “declare[d] war against pollution.”[2] NPC Chairman, Zhang Dejiang, echoed Li’s proclamation, informing delegates, “We will revise the Environmental Protection Law and the Air Pollution and Control Law to improve environmental protection and management so that emissions of all pollutants are strictly supervised.”[3]

Improving the environment is consistent with the goals in China’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015).[4] And legislation is one of the major solutions to China’s environmental problems. As China enters into the fourth year the Plan, the public will be watching the NPC closely to see whether progress toward the goal will be made, particularly in regard to decreasing air pollution.

Air pollution in China has been a major concern, both on a national and international level. China is home to 16 of the world’s twenty most polluted cities and produces a third of the greenhouse gas output on Earth.[5] According to a report by the Asian Development Bank, a mere 1% of China’s 500 largest cities were able to meet the World Health Organization’s air quality standards in 2012.[6]

February 25, 2014 marked the sixth consecutive day that Beijing’s air quality index met the “hazardous” level, according to the U.S. Embassy.[7] Pollution levels reached “501 micrograms per cubic meter, well above the World Health Organization’s safe limit of 25.”[8] Smog consistently engulfed many cities in China due to staggering levels of pollution, leading a professor at China Agricultural University to declare a “nuclear winter,”[9] while others are referencing an “airpocalypse.”[10]

Meanwhile, public discontent within China has been increasing. In a historic move in February 2014, Li Guixin, a resident of Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, became the first citizen to bring suit against the government for “failing to curb air pollution” in accordance with the law.[11] Li claims he was unable to participate in outdoor activities this winter due to the horrendous atmospheric conditions,[12] and seeks $1,600 in damages from the Shijiazhuang Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.[13] However, while Article 26 of China’s Constitution indicates a governmental interest in protecting the environment, the Constitution does not entitle individual citizens to a specific environmental right.[14] It is therefore uncertain whether the court will even entertain Li’s lawsuit.[15] Nonetheless, the bold action has drawn further attention to the government’s policies and spurred greater scrutiny of existing laws and their execution.

The pollution in China also has a global effect, and regularly contributes to the air quality problems in countries such as the United States. According to a study done in 2006, “On a daily basis, the export-related Chinese pollution contributed, at a maximum, 12-24% of sulfate concentrations over the western United States.”[16] Despite the efforts of countries like the U.S. to curb its own pollution, without reform, and as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China has the potential to wreck further havoc not only to its own environment, but to the environments of other countries as well.[17]

However, potential solutions to China’s air pollution do exist. Allowing for and strengthening responses the laws may result in improved air quality. In the U.S., citizen groups have been successful in achieving changes in law and policy. If citizens in China were allowed to bring action against the government, as Li Guixin has done, perhaps the government would be held more responsible for its actions or inactions in the area of environmental protection.

In addition, some have suggested that judicial and executive responses could be held under stricter scrutiny.[18] The judiciary, economically dependent on local government and wrought with corruption and pressures to ignore the law, is not as accountable as it should be in upholding the laws.[19] Moreover, as the allegations by Li Guixin highlight, perhaps the enforcement of environmental laws by local officials could be more stringent and regulated by more oversight.[20]

A major solution is through the amendment of the existing environmental protection law in China. The speeches given on the opening day of the NPC session would appear to indicate the government’s apparent commitment to making this a top priority. This year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection is expected to propose an “Air Pollution Prevention Law” for review.[21] The current draft imposes fines on local governments for failing to meet targets for air pollution reduction.[22] If the threat of harsh sanctions is effective, perhaps citizens such as Li Guixin will not have to resort to taking independent actions against the government to improve the air quality.

In addition, individual citizens of China could be held to higher standards through legislation. Although factories and plants are major contributors to the smog, Chinese citizens each add to the pollution through their energy and consumption habits, as well as their selected methods of transportation. In the absence of established laws and policies, individual citizens have the opportunity to recognize problems and make their own decisions on whether and how to take independent steps toward a solution. But perhaps self-monitoring and individual initiatives to reduce air pollution are not possible without the threat of legal ramifications.

And although the government is responsible for creating and amending China’s environmental laws and regulations, perhaps there are other parties, such as foreign purchasers, who could share responsibility for China’s predicament. Questions have been raised as to what extent China should be held accountable for its air pollution as compared to countries to which China exports goods.[23] For example, a study in 2006 found that “36% of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27% of nitrogen oxides, 22% of carbon monoxide, and 17% of black carbon emitted in China were associated with production of goods for export… About 21% of export-related emissions [of each pollutant] were attributed to China-to-US export.”[24] So even though Chinese factories and plants are at fault for the harmful emissions, other countries and corporations in those foreign countries have in a way encouraged China’s increase in pollution: either indirectly by demanding more products from China or directly by moving their production of goods overseas to China.

Officials have claimed that the “war on pollution” will be waged during this year’s annual session of the NPC. But it remains to be seen whether the Environmental Protection Law and the Air Pollution and Control Law will be amended or if any new laws will be approved. Both in China and abroad, the public will be watching the government’s actions carefully, in the hopes that its effects will drastically reduce, or at least curb, the current condition of air pollution. However, to have the greatest impact on improving its air quality, China must look not only to legislative solutions, but also to improving executive and judicial responses to the laws and policies, as well as potentially holding other parties, such other countries and their corporations, responsible for the problem.


-Dayna Chikamoto is a General Member on MJEAL. She can be reached at


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[1] Didi Kirsten Tatlow, China Declares “War Against Pollution”, N.Y. Times, Mar. 5, 2014,

[2] Id.

[3] Zhang Hong, Pollution and Food Safety to Top Legal Agenda This Year, Zhang Deijang Tells NPC Delegates, South China Morning Post, (last updated Mar. 10, 2014).

[4] David Stanway, Water, CO2 the Priorities for China’s 5-year Plan, Reuters, Mar. 3, 2011,

[5] Beina Xu, China’s Environmental Crisis, Council on Foreign Relations, (last visited Mar. 18, 2014).

[6] Id.

[7] Julia Makinen, Toxic Smog Hangs Over Large Swarth of China but Many Ignore Threat, L.A. Times, Feb. 25, 2014,,0,2798618.story?page=%201#axzz2vbxZUMPS.

[8] Sean Breslin, China’s Smog Continues to Worsen; Now Being Called a ‘Nuclear Winter’, The Weather Channel, (last visited Mar. 18, 2014).

[9] Breslin, supra note 8.

[10] Xu, supra note 5.

[11] Sui-Lee Wee, Chinese Man Becomes First to Sue Government Over Severe Smog, Reuters, Feb. 25, 2014,

[12] Id.

[13] Makinen, supra note 7.

[14] Ying Shen, Combating Climate Change: China’s Efforts on Environmental Legislation, The Envtl. L. Rep.,’s-efforts-environmental-legislation (last visited Mar. 18, 2014).

[15] Wee, supra note 11.

[16] Jintai Lin et al., China’s International Trade and Air Pollution in the United States, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Jan. 21, 2014),

[17] Xu, supra note 5.

[18] Shen, supra note 14.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Michael Standaert, China Outlines Environmental Action in ‘War’ on Air, Water and Soil Pollution, Bloomberg BNA, (last visited Mar. 18, 2014).

[22] Id.

[23] Lin et al., supra note 16.

[24] Id.


1 Comment

  1. Kenneth Glick (EEI)

    It’s going to be next to impossible for meaningful environmental improvement in China under a totalitarian regime that currently exists. Not only is freedom of both the press and protest suppressed but, as your article points out, individual citizens don’t have the right to bring lawsuits against the government or businesses like they do in Western countries limiting the tools that environmentalists have to encourage the reduction of pollution at the source.

    The real problem lies in that it could take decades for any reform to finally come about and by that time the damage to China’s environment may be next to irreversible, not only threatening the people who live in China but it’s entire economy as well as well as the economies of its biggest trading partners… such as the United States.

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