THE BLOG
03/29/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated May 29, 2013

Will China's New Leaders Clean up the Environment?

I was trying to clean the coal dust from the windows of my dingy Beijing apartment one day in March 1992 when the phone rang with astonishing news. Nearly one-third of the delegates to the National People's Congress had just abstained or voted against the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydropower project. I simply could not believe my ears. China's rubber-stamp legislature had never displayed such a level of opposition in its entire history, let alone on environmental grounds. The vote was even more remarkable in light of the government's strenuous attempts to stifle public debate about the project's environmental, safety and social impacts.

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Three Gorges Dam, Source: Flickr/PCVG

It was only in 2011, five years after the dam was completed, that the State Council, China's top government body, finally acknowledged that the project has resulted in "urgent" environmental and geological problems that must be addressed. Many of these problems, including the increased risks of earthquakes, landslides, droughts and social upheaval, are the same ones that concerned the delegates to the 1992 National People's Congress. Yet the government's failure to heed these concerns and tackle them head on at the beginning of the project may make it impossible to solve them now, leading government experts and the official state media to warn that "the project could lead to a catastrophe."

China is now in the midst of a nationwide environmental crisis, and last week, hundreds of deputies to the National People's Congress once again rose up to protest. In a vote on the NPC's new environmental protection and resources conservation committee, nearly a third of the delegates either voted in opposition or abstained (in fact, there was even a long boo of the committee members). In addition, while the Minister of Environmental Protection (MEP), Zhou Shengxian, was reappointed, he received the least number of votes of any minister. This strong showing of opposition -- the first since 1992 -- reflects public pressure and demonstrates that even officials who have long prioritized GDP growth above anything else are fed up with China's worsening environmental degradation.

The votes came as Beijing was once again shrouded in heavy smog and Shanghai was knee-deep in a scandal of its own with over 16,000 dead pigs in rivers in and near the city. Further, public anger has been mounting since the MEP refused to release soil pollution data, labeling it a "state secret." Instead of taking responsibility, MEP's Vice Minister, Wu Xiaoqing, continued with the ministry's "tightly scripted" statement during a news conference at the NPC that avoided addressing any of these contentious issues. Yet as one NPC deputy pointed out, the environmental problem doesn't lie solely on MEP's shoulders; it requires leadership from the top as well as the involvement of all other ministries and officials to create lasting change.

In his first speech as China's new Premier, Li Keqiang spoke of putting environmental protection ahead of economic growth, and even encouraged both media and the public to hold him accountable in tackling China's worsening environmental issues, which have become the number one cause of protests in China. Premier Li emphasized the importance of transparency in achieving environmental protection, and reports indicate that he was instrumental in pushing for the release of PM 2.5 pollution monitoring data to the public. Increased transparency and access to data are essential to enable the public to play a constructive role in tackling pollution. A well-informed public can also provide vital support to Li as he seeks to punish polluters and reform the powerful state-owned enterprises that have long blocked strong environmental policies in China.

It remains to be seen how well China's new leaders will deliver on their promises. But a lot has changed in the twenty years since NPC delegates first expressed environmental concerns, only to have them swept under the rug. China's environmental problems today are simply too big to hide.

Co-authored with Christine Xu. This post was originally featured on Switchboard, the NRDC Staff Blog.