The environment is center stage once again in China. A Chinese lawyer has requested the findings of a national survey on soil pollution from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and been denied on the grounds that the information is a state secret. (The government had previously announced that 10 percent of China’s farmland was contaminated, but no details were provided.) The public and media are now pressing the Ministry to reverse its decision.
Why the secrecy? To begin with, the Chinese government’s initial reaction to almost any request for information is to say no. It is simply reflexive on Beijing’s part. Second, to provide details on the types, levels, and location of soil contamination throughout the country would inevitably cause serious financial hardship to farmers, who may be knowingly or unknowingly selling tainted produce, force an entire countrywide evaluation of the likely pollution sources for the contamination, and cause a widespread public health outcry Third, remediating contaminated soil on such a large scale is a costly, time-consuming, challenging project. No doubt the Ministry of Environmental Protection would like to figure out how it might begin the process and develop a plan to do so before it is forced to respond to public anger.
One potentially positive sign: there are rumors that one of the current Vice-Ministers of the Environment, Pan Yue, will be appointed Minister at the upcoming National People’s Congress. This would be a substantial step forward. Pan—who has been kept out of the public eye for the past several years—has been a champion of transparency. A number of years ago, he pushed an initiative to adopt a Green GDP, which was designed to estimate the economic costs associated with China’s environmental pollution and degradation. The effort failed due to the recalcitrance of local provincial officials, as well as the disinterest of the environment agency’s partner, the National Bureau of Statistics. Pan is also outspoken in his support of non-governmental organizations and willingness to cooperate with them.
In the end, I think the information will be released. There is little justification to protect data on soil contamination, when the Ministry has already acknowledged the right of the people to have access to air quality statistics. More importantly, I think this is just the beginning. The “public’s right to know” along with the Internet are likely to be the two great transformative political processes of the next three to five years.