China has the laws, but its ability to enforce them is weak, especially in the face of giant firms that pour millions into otherwise bereft local government coffers. Critics say Beijing also lacks the will to tackle the problem.
“People want growth. People want development, but they don’t accept that this should happen at the expense of their quality of life, and even the health of their children, but it’s very hard to hold the local government accountable,” said Ma Jun (馬軍), head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a non-profit group that monitors pollution across China.
Neither Zijin Mining nor the local government in Shanghang responded to interview requests for this article.
Like many state-owned firms, Zijin is more than just an enterprise and has benefited from a vast state support system giving it access to cheap credit, and a blind eye when it comes to pollution. Its dominance of the local economy also means that many officials think that what is good for Zijin is generally good for the community at large.
The situation is made worse because state firms like Zijin were carved out of mining bureaus and never quite lost their role as arms of the government, maintaining old relationships and channels of communication, as well as running hospitals, schools or retirement homes.
For many residents seeking to complain about pollution, it is often difficult to see where the company ends and the state begins.
“The problem tends to involve the capture of the government by various interests — these problems are exacerbated when the company actually is the government,” said Berkeley professor Alex Wang, an expert on China’s environmental legislation.
At the time of the 2010 accident, the head of Zijin’s supervisory board was Lin Shuiqing (林水清), formerly the local Shanghang government boss, and he remains in position. Other top company officials, including those on Zijin’s CCP committee, also served as local bureaucrats or legislators. Zijin’s largest shareholder is an arm of Shanghang’s state-owned assets bureau.
All of which, in Shanghang and elsewhere, makes it tough for a relatively low-status environmental official to call a huge and powerful company to account.
“I sense that local environmental agencies are very sincere and really want to clean up, but then they get a call from the vice-mayor and are told the company is very important and shouldn’t be touched,” Ma said.
Two months after the Shanghang spill, another dam burst at a Zijin mine in Guangdong Province. The authorities eventually stepped in, firing and prosecuting company officials and imposing punitive fines. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has since used those punishments to show that its ability to enforce its laws has been strengthened, but experts say that while Beijing is often forced to response to catastrophes, chronic, day-to-day pollution continues unabated.
“Job one is economic growth and if the side-effects of that create some sort of crisis then the system is designed to react, but not before,” Wang said.
HAVING IT BOTH WAYS
After apologizing for the 2010 incidents, “which not only caused social disputes, but also tarnished our brand and damaged our reputation,” Chen said the company’s “good deeds” should also be recognized.