China is to elevate the status of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) to a ministry, among the major 27 ministries and commissions of the Cabinet, said Hua Jianmin, State Council secretary-general, on Tuesday.
"Environmental protection is the fundamental policy of our country, and is crucial to the existence and development of the Chinese nation," Hua, a State Councilor, said while explaining a government reshuffle plan at the ongoing parliamentary session in Beijing
China will face the severe challenge of environmental protection for a long time to come, with the arduous task of reducing pollutants, he noted.
The new ministry aims "to step up environmental improvement and ecological protection and accelerate the building of a resource-saving and environment-friendly society."
Hua added the ministry was responsible for drafting and implementing programs, policies and standards concerning environmental protection, working out environmental functions in different regions, supervising pollution prevention and treatment, and tackling major environmental issues.
The change was welcomed by deputies to the National People's Congress (NPC).
"It is really exciting," said Huang Xihua, vice director of the environmental protection bureau of Huizhou, Guangdong Province. "The environmental protection work of China will have more room for improvement," she said.
China's environmental protection work started about 30 years ago, when a group under the then construction commission was founded.
In 1987, an independent national environmental protection bureau was established at a vice-ministerial level. It was elevated to ministerial level in 1998.
"This further elevation shows the government has become more concerned with environmental protection," said Wei Fusheng, a Chinese Academy of Engineering academician.
Environmental protection has been in the spotlight in recent years as China's economic miracle has brought in its wake severe challenges to the environment.
In 2006, China missed its pollution control goals of cutting two main pollutants by 2 percent.
Many Chinese still remember the polluting of the northeastern Songhua River in November 2005 after a chemical plant explosion, and the blue-green algae outbreak in the eastern Taihu Lake in Jiangsu Province in May 2007. Both incidents caused water cuts for millions of residents.
Huang knows well the dilemmas faced by local environmental protection bureaus.
"Environmental protection bureaus at provincial level and below are under the direct leadership of local governments, who are in charge of our personnel changes and funding," she said.
"Eat one's hay, walk his way. It is hard for a local environmental protection bureau to work independently and monitor the government."
The overlapping administrative function of several departments is another problem.
Chen Min, Guangdong provincial environmental protection bureau vice director, recalled his trouble in carrying out an environmental protection project.
"Progress of the project was slow because it needed the coordination of many departments like agricultural, forestry, water resources, among others. But as the level of environmental protection administration was lower in comparison, it was very hard for us to negotiate with other departments."
Huang made a motion in 2003 as the deputy to the 10th National People's Congress calling for the elevation of SEPA.
At the end of 2007, the China Council International Cooperation on Environment and Development submitted a proposal to the State Council for the elevation and its vertical administration for local environmental protection bureaus.
In fact, elevation of the environmental protection administration might not be a cure-all, but it sparked people's hope.
"Now that they are at the same level, it would be easier for environmental officials to negotiate with other departments at the planning stage of some projects, so as to prevent pollution from the beginning," said academician Wei.
His view was shared by Wang Jinnan, Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning vice head.
"In the past, policies of SEPA were always opposed by various interest groups," he said. "After the elevation, the new ministry could enjoy more rights in decision-making."
However, there were people who remained cool-headed at the change, especially those from grassroots bureaus who didn't see the sign of change for vertical administration.
"The elevation is surely a good thing, but when it comes to grassroots level, enhancement of authorities in environmental protection would not be that easy," said an unnamed official from a local environmental protection bureau.
(Xinhua News Agency March 12, 2008)