The toxic smog engulfing Beijing and other Chinese cities has forced the Communist government to amend its development model and bring in a new environmental protection law in a bid to calm ever growing public anger. Unfortunately, as in the past, the new environment law may prefer to stay within China proper rather than extend into the ethnic regions of the PRC.
Ever since the former President Hu Jintao’s scientific development concept slogan in 2003, there has been loud government rhetoric on environment protection, but the lack of genuine efforts was evident from Chai Jing’s ‘Under the Dome’ documentary film. The film reveals that the giant state-owned companies continue to flout environmental laws and still pride themselves as patriots.
So, how might the new environmental protection law be enforced is a question which needs analysis.
The swift approval of the new law and the appointment of Chen Jining as the minister to enforce the law is a step forward. This is a welcome indication that President Xi Jinping is serious about environmental protection. But the commercial interests of the giant state-owned companies are deeply intertwined with the wealth of the Chinese central and provincial officials. So any moves directly affecting this lucrative business would mean serious internal friction.
Therefore the Chinese government, as it did in the past, may take an approach that aims to appease both the officials and urban citizens. Beijing would enforce the new environmental law as strictly as possible in China proper to calm growing public dissent, while leaving the law ambiguously enforced in the ethnic regions like Inner Mongolia, East Turkestan and Tibet. Such an approach would thus enable the Chinese companies to continue making money far away from Beijing; in places where the laws are interpreted and manipulated as it suits the interests of the central and local officials, or where environment protests are ruthlessly suppressed as they are deemed ‘anti-national’ or ‘influenced by the Dalai clique’.
The more than 20 large-scale mining protests in Tibetan areas brutally suppressed by the Chinese government in the past 5 years is a dreadful reminder of the ambiguity of such laws.
- The Gyama (near Lhasa) mine landslide in March 2013 which killed 83 mine workers was clearly induced by mismanagement of the mine, but the company was not punished.
- The same mine was blamed for the poisoning of a stream flowing through Dokar village in September 2014, but the officials again sided with the mining company. The stream is a tributary of Lhasa Kyichu river which joins the Yarlung Tsangpo or the Brahmaputra.
- On August 2013, the locals of Zatoe in Kham (north-eastern Tibet) protested against mining in the Sianjainyun (Source region of Machu, Drichu and Zachu river) Nature Reserve. The officials fired tear gas and detained the locals instead of enforcing the nature reserve protection laws.
- Mining has been declared the pillar industry in the Tibetan areas, despite being the biggest threat to the fragile ecosystem of the world’s highest plateau, thus hurting both the land and the people of this ancient civilization.
So the terrifying visible outcome is that the Tibetan plateau is being plundered and poisoned, and gradually being turned into another toxic Chinese province. Environmental protection means not repeating past errors, but Beijing seems completely indifferent when it comes to the need of protecting the environment of the ethnic regions.
This indifference is apparent if we take a careful assessment of President Xi Jinping’s commitment to peak carbon emissions by 2030. This surely is a way forward, but it means drastically reducing coal consumption. So as Grace Mang of International Rivers put it so aptly in her article ‘No need to sacrifice rivers for power’, that the devil is in the details, and how will Beijing plan to quench the ever rising energy thirst of the world’s second largest economy?
Unfortunately, the Chinese government is set to dam and divert water from Tibetan rivers to light cities and factories in China. Like the removal of Tibetan nomads from grasslands to bring in mining, the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau is now being put at risk to reduce smog in coastal cities of China.
The risk from 510 megawatt Zammu hydropower dam on Yarlung Tsangpo in Metok county of Southern Tibet and the 295 meter high Lianghekou dam on Nyakchu River in the Nyarong area of the eastern Tibet is simply too great. The impact on the region’s wildlife habitat and reduced river flow into the downstream areas are apparent, but the most dreadful threat would be from (RIS) Reservoir-Induced Seismic activity like the horrifying Wenchuan and Ludian earthquakes. Experts have voiced the possibility of 2008 Wenchuan earthquake (which killed 80,000 people) induced by the nearby Zipingpu Dam and the 2014 Ludian earthquake in Yunnan, which was similarly induced by the Xiluodu dam.
Sadly, China has planned more such mega dams on Tibetan rivers and destructive mining on the mountains, a rapidly surging threat on the fragile plateau.
The call for the rule of law in China by President Xi Jinping is a glimmer of hope that the laws would be enforced and the unruly state-owned companies would be disciplined. But the question is, will the new environmental protection law be equally and fairly enforced and extended into Tibet?
*Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha is an Environment Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute and the head of the Environment and Development Desk