China's spectacular economic growth has caused the incidence of absolute poverty to plunge over the past two decades; however, this massive rate of industrialisation has also led to a pollution crisis with serious health and environmental concerns such as air pollution and contaminated drinking water supplies.
China has hundreds of environmental laws and regulations, and is party to over eighty environmental treaties. Yet an official from the state environmental agency has described this as 'a wealth of laws with shallow roots', since despite all its legal commitments Chinese cities remain some of the most polluted areas on earth.
This paper examines the reasons for the discrepancy between law and practice in combating pollution. Anti-pollution legislation is too vaguely worded to be useful in creating enforceable rights and obligations. There is also a considerable gap between national policy and local implementation by Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPBs). EPBs are beholden to local governments, which are in turn dependent on the biggest industrial actors (and polluters) in their locality for economic development. One way to circumvent the inadequacies of government agencies is to allow citizens to bring their own actions in enforcing the law. This requires a strong support structure to provide the necessary resources for public participation: information and funding. In addition to the work of NGOs, the media, and legal aid centres, one potential initiative for increasing information flows is the establishment of a public emissions database. It is possible that the new China Pollution Source Census will fulfil this role.