Erin Ryan

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This very short essay reports on the 2014 amendments to China’s Environmental Protection Law, following a series of internationally reported air and water pollution crises leading to unprecedented public protests. The changes promise more meaningful oversight of industrial pollution and harsher penalties for violations, targeting not only polluters but officials who fail to enforce applicable regulations against them. The amendments also empower certain non-governmental organizations to bring environmental litigation on behalf of the public. Official news accounts openly acknowledge the government’s hope that increased public access to legal redress will reduce the growing trend of mass environmental protests. These are critical changes because they acknowledge that under-enforcement has been the downfall of Chinese environmental law to this point. If these enforcement incentives are themselves enforced (the big ‘if’), they have the potential to make a real difference for China’s environmental future. Efforts to shift environmental discontent toward legal channels must be effectively coupled with judicial reforms to ensure that legal channels approximate the rule of law — but if these reforms proceed together, both the environment and the rule of law in China will benefit.

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