In a clear sign that the growth-at-all-costs policy that has governed the Chinese economy for a generation is changing, Beijing has unveiled a slate of stronger environmental laws aimed at, among other things, curbing chronic smog in its major cities.
Back in March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared a war on pollution and this legislative package, passed by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, makes protection of the environment a bedrock policy for the government.
The new laws, which give regulators much greater enforcement tools, represent the most significant overhaul to the nation's environmental regulations in more than 25 years, Bloomberg reported. They are scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2015.
The reforms are being seen as a sign that the central government views the deteriorating environmental conditions in the country as a threat to social stability. News reports of toxins in the food and water supply, and choking smog in urban areas has sparked several protests.
An estimated 16 percent of China's total land area is unfit for use. A survey of thousands of sites across China found that 60 percent of the groundwater is of poor or extremely poor quality, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources. And last year, Beijing's air pollution exceeded government standards 52 percent of the time.
The new reforms will give greater authority to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, allowing it to shut down and seize the assets of entities that violate the law. Moreover, it will make environmental data open to the public and create new penalties for local government officials who falsify environmental data; now they can be demoted or fired.
One of the more controversial provisions being considered was the expanding the ability of non-profit groups to bring lawsuits against polluters. The final package of laws does expand the number of groups who can bring litigation, but stops short of allowing any entity to sue for damages. Instead, a certain number of groups that have been registered with the government for at least five years can initiate legal action. Environmental groups were largely pleased with the reforms, but criticized this aspect of the package.