State Monopoly of Environmental Quality Monitoring and Reporting: State Secrets and Environmental Protection

August 21, 2012

Chinese authorities appear posed to strengthen barriers, through revisions to monitoring regulations, to non-governmental efforts to independently monitor and report on environmental quality. This development along with the June 2012 official public rebuke of U.S. officials for U.S. monitoring and reporting of PM2.5 air pollutants highlight official control over environmental quality information and suggest that such information is sensitive. Chinese authorities have cited the need for quality control over monitoring data; officials, however, also consider some environmental data as "secret."

Independent PM2.5 Monitoring Activities and Environmental Transparency Advocacy
Since at least the fall of 2011, in some locations, individuals and groups have used portable equipment to monitor PM2.5 levels locally (Xinhua, 1 March 12; Associated Press via Yahoo!, 8 December 11; and China Net, 20 June 12), but some of those engaged in the monitoring were unclear if these actions were permissible by law, according to a December 19, 2011, Legal Daily article. PM2.5 is particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller and is associated with a variety of health problems (U.S. EPA, undated). Citizen monitoring activities came amid some doubts about the veracity of official air quality reports, at least in Beijing (Caixin, 6 December 11; China Economic Net, 9 December 11; USA Today, 26 December 11; and Agence France-Presse via Google, 30 November 11). Independent monitoring activities also came amid citizen advocacy for greater official transparency related to PM2.5 data, including open government information requests (Wall Street Journal, 8 November 11; Xinhua, 7 December 11; Southern Daily, 22 November 11). Advocacy efforts largely came after officials had announced in September 2011 that they planned to initiate PM2.5 monitoring and reporting pilot projects (Chinadialogue, 19 October 11). Since January 2012, several cities have begun to monitor and publicize PM2.5 levels, including Beijing (Beijing Review, 16 February 12), Guangzhou, and Hong Kong (Wall Street Journal, 9 March 12). The government said 74 cities would be required to release PM2.5 data to the public by year's end (Caixin, 2 August 12).

Legality of Independent Environmental Quality Monitoring Activities
While officials reportedly made some changes to pending draft revisions of environmental quality monitoring regulations, a report indicates environmental groups remain uncertain about the legality of independent monitoring activities (Beijing Evening News, 16 July 12). A Ministry of Environmental Protection official reportedly said the Environmental Monitoring Management Regulations (Draft for Comment) (2009) (2009 Draft Monitoring Regulations), which had undergone review by select government agencies since 2009, had been sent to the State Council Legal Affairs Office for review (Beijing Times article via the Ministry of Environmental Protection 17 July 12). A July 17 21st Century Business Herald article quoted an environmental official who said the current draft of the regulations "does not restrict other work units and individuals from monitoring environmental quality." He said the recent revisions do, however, stipulate prior approval would be needed to provide the monitoring data on "public platforms." The August 2 Caixin article, however, reported concern among non-government environmental organizations about even purchasing environmental monitoring equipment for fear of prosecution. Article 68 of the revisions to the 2009 Draft Monitoring Regulations stipulate that a government-approved organization should check the suitability of monitoring equipment and only then can it be used to monitor environmental quality.

China's Rebuke of U.S. Monitoring and Reporting on PM2.5
This discussion of independent citizen environmental monitoring activities comes on the heels of an official Chinese rebuke in early June 2012, of U.S. officials for U.S. monitoring and Twitter reporting of PM2.5 gathered by equipment within embassy and consulate compounds. In mid-May, the U.S. consulate in Shanghai began monitoring PM2.5 in the area surrounding its offices (China Daily, 1 June 12), which follows years of monitoring by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which began in 2008 (Wall Street Journal, 5 June 12). During an Earth Day (June 5) press conference on national environmental quality, Vice Minister Wu Xiaoqing of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) said, "we hope that every foreign embassy [will] respect relevant Chinese laws and regulations, and cease publishing unrepresentative air quality information" (People's Daily, 5 June 12). He also said the U.S. monitoring was not "rigorous" or to "standard," and that foreign diplomats "cannot interfere in internal affairs." He indicated that Chinese governmental departments are responsible for China's environmental monitoring system, seeming to imply that no other organizations may conduct monitoring. On June 6, in a regular press briefing, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Li Weimin reiterated similar accusations (Foreign Ministry, 7 June 12). He also claimed that embassy/consulate environmental monitoring and reporting did not comply with articles of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Deputy Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, Mark Toner, discussed the Chinese accusations in response to a U.S. reporter's questions during regular press briefings on June 5 and June 6. He said that the United States did not believe the PM2.5 reports to be a violation of the Vienna Conventions or to constitute interference in China's internal affairs. Toner further noted that the United States had acknowledged the data was from a single monitor, saying "this is just information that we provide to the American community so that they can make decisions based on safety of outdoor activities." In the June 6 press conference, Toner said the United States would continue to monitor PM2.5 (within embassy/consulate grounds).

Revisions to Monitoring Regulations: Government Strengthens Monopoly Over Information
Revisions to the 2009 Draft Monitoring Regulations, made available to select organizations for review in 2009, are ongoing and articles contained in the draft for comment outline specific restrictions on environmental quality monitoring and clarify punishments for noncompliance (including for unauthorized monitoring and reporting). When passed, the draft revisions will replace the National Environmental Monitoring Management Regulations issued July 12, 1983.

  • Article 4 stipulates that environmental departments at the county-level and above are responsible for managing environmental monitoring work within their respective administrative areas. (The 1983 version had analogous stipulations, Articles 3-4). Article 82 stipulates that the same organizations are responsible for disclosing environmental monitoring information.
  • Article 9 stipulates that foreign groups and individuals or Chinese groups or individuals cooperating with foreign entities on scientific research work, must obtain permission from environmental departments prior to engaging in monitoring activities. These organizations or individuals must adhere to relevant provisions of Chinese laws and administrative regulations, and their activities cannot "involve state secrets" or "harm the interests of the state." (Article 21 of the 1983 version simply stipulates that approval must be obtained to provide the "outside world" with data, materials, and results.)
  • Article 81 states: "no work unit or individual may make public in any form information related to the monitoring of environmental quality without approval." (Article 21 of the 1983 version stated: "monitoring data, materials, results, are all property of the nation, no individual has exclusive rights. No individual and work unit may use and publish monitoring data and materials that have not been formally published, without permission of the responsible department.")
  • The draft revisions will contain specific monetary and other punishments for individuals and organizations that do not adhere to the provisions of the regulations, including individuals without "credentials" who engage in environmental monitoring (Articles 83-95). Authorities may fine foreign organizations, individuals, and those working on cooperative research with foreign organizations that do not obtain prior permission to conduct environmental monitoring, and will confiscate their monitoring data, materials, and equipment (Article 92). (The 1983 version did not stipulate specific punishments.)

Citizen Suggestions Regarding the 2009 Draft Revisions
In December 2011, 21 Chinese non-governmental organizations reportedly submitted 8 suggestions to authorities regarding the 2009 Draft Monitoring Regulations suggesting that restrictions on environmental monitoring by various groups be further clarified and that provisions should emphasize the link between environmental quality and citizens' health, according to the February 19 Legal Daily article. They also urged greater attention to citizens' rights to access environmental quality information and suggested that officials should remove provisions detrimental to public participation and supervision, according to the same article.

State Secrets and Environmental Data
While Chinese officials may want to control the quality of environmental quality data that is made public; they also still consider some environmental information as "secret." At least part of one environmental open government request apparently was denied on the basis that the data requested was considered "secret." (Anhui People's Government Open Government Information Net, 20 October 10). As alluded to in the response posted online to the information request, the 2004 "Environmental Protection Work State Secrets Catalog" contained in the "Provisions on the Scope of State Secrets in Environmental Protection Work" appears to still be in force, as of October 2010 (Hubei Environmental Protection Portal, 30 September 10). CECC staff was unable to locate a copy of the 2004 version of the provisions online, although a previous version was found here (Environmental Protection Bureau, Shixing County, Guangdong province).

For more information on transparency in the environmental sector, see Section II—The Environment in the CECC 2011 Annual Report (pp. 145-146).