BEIJING - Smog-hit China is set to pass a new law that would give Beijing more powers to shut polluting factories and punish officials, and even place protected regions off-limits to industrial development, scholars with knowledge of the situation said.
Long-awaited amendments to China's 1989 Environmental Protection Law are expected to be finalised later this year, giving the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) greater authority to take on polluters.
While some details of the fourth draft are still under discussion, it has been agreed that the principle of prioritising the environment above the economy will be enshrined in law, according to scholars who have been involved in the process. The fourth draft is due to be completed within weeks. "(Upholding) environmental protection as the fundamental principle is a huge change, and emphasises that the environment is a priority," said Cao Mingde, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, who was involved in the drafting process.
The first change to the legislation in 25 years will give legal backing to Beijing's newly declared war on pollution and formalise a pledge made last year to abandon a decades-old growth-at-all-costs economic model that has spoiled much of China's water, skies and soil.
Cao cautioned that some of the details of the measures could be removed as a result of bureaucratic horsetrading. The MEP has called for the law to spell out how new powers can be implemented in practice, but the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country's top economic planning agency, prefers broader, more flexible principles. "There is a usual practice when everyone is unable to come to a complete agreement - we first put an idea into the law and then draw up detailed administrative rules later," Cao said.
Local authorities' dependence on the taxes and employment provided by polluting industries is reflected by the priorities set out in China's growth-focused legal code, said Wang Canfa, an environment law professor who runs the Center for Pollution Victims in China and also took part in the drafting stage.
The environment ministry did not respond to detailed questions on its role in the drafting process and the specific content of the new amendments, but said the legislation was currently in the hands of the Legal Work Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature.
The protracted legal process usually kicks off with a number of drafts from academic institutions, which are then examined by ministries, local governments and industry groups. A new draft then goes to the legal affairs office of the State Council, China's cabinet, before being delivered to the NPC and opened up to members of the public to have their say.