As many as 22 major dams and power stations under construction in
China, including a key power facility at the controversial Three
Gorges Dam, have slowed or stopped work pending an environmental
In the first instance of its kind, top Chinese leaders appear to
be throwing their clout behind laws requiring environmental-impact
statements for large energy-related projects.
Even if the projects, which total more than $14 billion and span
13 provinces, soon go back online, Beijing's public support of the
State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), long considered a mere
showpiece, seems an official nod to growing numbers of Chinese who
support tougher policies to protect nature.
Energy-hungry China has embarked in recent years on a breakneck
program of investment in power plants, adding to an already
overheating economy. By enforcing policies requiring companies to
account for environmental impact, the power sector may cool down a
bit - one reason to allow SEPA to fine construction companies and
demand they follow the law, according to an unusually frank South
Metropolitan Daily editorial.
In the past decade, China's roaring double-digit growth,
industrial output, and booming new-car sales have caused some of the
worst air and water pollution in Asia.
So far, watchdogs like SEPA, despite being an arm of government,
have not been given latitude to enforce any clean air and water
Yet on Jan. 18, in a bit of savvy bureaucratic maneuvering, SEPA
suddenly charged 30 construction projects with illegality, since
they failed to submit impact statements.
Since then, most of the dams and hydroelectric projects have
reportedly suspended work, according to the English-language China
The construction firm building the Three Gorges Dam project,
after several days of balking, bent to an edict from the State
Council. It stopped work on a 4,500-megawatt underground power
facility, and a $5 billion dam called Xiluodu on the Yangtze River.
Analysts attribute a new attitude about the environment to
deepening relations between figures like Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao
and young stars at SEPA, like its deputy director Pan Yue.
"I think this is a significant moment; it signifies a new
consciousness about the environment," says Elizabeth Economy of the
Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Pan Yue is spearheading
that move among elites, and SEPA clearly has the ear of [Premier]
The environment is a popular grass-roots issue in China, one of
the few issues the central government allows some public discussion
about. Every top college in China has an active student
environmental group. The government of President Hu Jintao,
moreover, which has a "people first" platform, knows the environment
has a special hold on the imagination of a broad range of Chinese -
partly because many of the children of high-ranking are involved in
nongovernmental environmental lobby groups.
Few analysts say Beijing is about to allow large-scale public
works projects, a source of employment and energy, to be vetoed by a
Yet analysts agree the high profile push by SEPA is a signal - to
reform-minded elites, a generation of younger educated Chinese, and
policymakers in other countries where the environment gets top
billing - that the environment will weigh more heavily in planning
and decisionmaking. …