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Addressing failures of environmental information disclosure through administrative lawsuits in China: the paradox of legal mobilization

Abstract

In China, the new open government information legislation entered into force in 2008, which has provided the basis for the public to invoke the law to request government agencies to disclose environmental information. During this process, administrative litigation has been utilized by the public as a means to rectify their failures of obtaining environmental information through disclosure request. Treating this process as a legal mobilization, this article analyzes the complexities of access to government information from a socio-legal perspective. It aims to understand the paradox that citizens and entities actively initiate such litigation despite the fact that a successful result is not likely to be achieved through such lawsuits. In outlining the role of citizens and entities, including environmental organizations and law firms, this article argues that administrative litigation has been used as a legal strategy by both citizens and entities not only to obtain the information but also to impose pressure upon government agencies to adapt to the new open government information mechanism. Empowered by law, citizens and entities have been transposed from passive subjects to direct activists in the process, and have created changes in both the political process and the legal development of government information disclosure.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    政府信息公开条例 (The Regulations on Open Government Information, hereafter OGI Regulations), adopted by the 165th meeting of the State Council on 17 January 2007, State Council Order No. 492, effective as of 1 May 2008.

  2. 2.

    环境信息公开暂行办法 (The Interim Measures on Open Environmental Information, hereafter OEI Measures), adopted by the State Environmental Protection Administration, the predecessor of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), on 8 February 2007, State Environmental Protection Administration Order No. 35, effective as of 1 May 2008.

  3. 3.

    The author conducted the interviews during three stages of fieldwork undertaken between 2009 and 2012 in China. The interviews were all transcribed by the author and remain on file with the author.

  4. 4.

    Zemans 1983, p. 700.

  5. 5.

    Vanhala 2011b.

  6. 6.

    Zemans 1983, p. 700.

  7. 7.

    O’Brien and Li, 2006; see also O'Brien 2003, p. 53.

  8. 8.

    See, e.g., Diamant et al. 2005

  9. 9.

    See, e.g., Teng 2012.

  10. 10.

    Fu and Cullen 2010.

  11. 11.

    See, Stern 2013; Stern 2011; van Rooij, 2010; Wang 2006–2007.

  12. 12.

    Wilson 2012.

  13. 13.

    See, Ma and Ortolano 2000, 92; Economy 2004, 102.

  14. 14.

    This data and information collection was completed by October 2012. The lawsuits occurred between May 2008 and October 2012. Due to the lack of official case reports in China, the cases were collected by the author via internet searches and investigative fieldwork. The cases are numbered by the author. In Table 1, EPB (huanbaoju 环保局) refers to city level or county-level environmental protection bureau; EPD (huanbaoting 环保厅) refers to provincial-level environmental protection department.

  15. 15.

    Strictly speaking, in China mediation (tiaojie 调解) is not applicable to administrative lawsuits, except for administrative compensation cases. However, reconciliation (hejie 和解) acts in a similar way that the court acts as a go-between and facilitates the two parties in administrative lawsuit for a settlement of the dispute until the plaintiff withdraws from the lawsuit. See, Chen 2011, p. 301, ft329.

  16. 16.

    In this article, Chinese practice is followed with regard to Chinese name that family name is placed before given name. Case No. 2 in Table 1.

  17. 17.

    Case No. 1 in Table 1.

  18. 18.

    Case No. 9 in Table 1.

  19. 19.

    Case No. 3 in Table 1.

  20. 20.

    Epp 1998, p. 20; see also, Tam 2013, 115–170.

  21. 21.

    Sun Nong (孙农), 关于要求提供废旧电池回收处理相关信息的函 (Letter to request used battery recycle and disposal information) (7 November 2008) http://www.chinatransparency.org/newsinfo.asp?newsid=3520. Accessed on 8 August 2013.

  22. 22.

    Lei Zhifeng (雷志锋), 关于申请湖南省环境保护厅履行电磁监管法定职责的申请 (About request Hunan EPD to perform its obligation of electromagnetic monitoring) (Lei Zhifeng blog, 25 May 2012) http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4ed8b93b010165jf.html. Accessed 6 August 2013.

  23. 23.

    Xia Jun, ‘China's courts fail the environment’ (China Dialogue, 16 January 2012) http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/4727--China-s-courts-fail-the-environment. Accessed 8 September 2013.

  24. 24.

    Qie Jianrong (郄建荣), 中国首例垃圾焚烧污染受害者请求确认环保部违法 (First incinerator pollution victim asks court to decide the MEP violates the law) (Fazhi ribao 法制日报 4 February 2013).

  25. 25.

    Qie Jianrong (郄建荣), 环境公益律师上书环保部部长 (Environmental public interest lawyer writes to MEP minister) (Fazhi ribao 法制日报 11 August 2012).

  26. 26.

    Li 2007.

  27. 27.

    PCBs refers to polychlorinated biphenyls. They belong to persistent organic pollutants.

  28. 28.

    The Impact Law Firm (义派律师事务所) 2012 report, 上善若水:中国八十城市污染源监控政府环境信息公开申请公益行动报告 (The highest virtue is like water: 80 Chinese pollution source monitoring cities environmental information disclosure requests public interest campaign), p. 6 and 46.

  29. 29.

    For further discussion on Zhang Changjian et al v Rongping Chemical Plant, please see, Wang 2006–2007; see also, Stern 2013, pp. 73–78; Stern 2011.

  30. 30.

    Huanzhu Law Firm official website http://www.clapv.org/Lawfirm/index.asp. Accessed 8 August 2013.

  31. 31.

    Interview with NGO officer and lawyer, 31 May 2011.

  32. 32.

    Paris 2010, p. 24.

  33. 33.

    OGI Regulations, art 24; OEI Measures, art 18.

  34. 34.

    Xu Yuandong and Huang Heng (许元栋,黄恒), 律师状告环保局败诉 (Lawyer lost litigation against EPB) (Nanfang dushibao 南方都市报, 25 December 2009).

  35. 35.

    Zhang Ying’ang (张应昂), 告环保局回收电池不力被驳回, 一审法院认为该案不在审理范围内(Suing EPB for failure in battery disposal management, court of first instance states the claim cannot be accepted) (Nanfang dushibao 南方都市报, 20 May 2009).

  36. 36.

    Jiang Gewei (蒋格伟), 新婚业主与“电磁辐射”为邻 状告湖南省环保厅 (Newly-wed neighbor “electron magnetic radiation”, sues Hunan province EPD) (Fazhi zhoubao 法制周报 28 February 2012).

  37. 37.

    Lei Zhifeng (雷志锋), 省环保厅已书面答复政府信息,诉其不公开案撤诉处理 (Provincial Environmental Protection Department provided written reply, lawsuit withdrew) (Lei Zhifeng blog, 8 March 2012), http://lzflawyer9.blog.163.com/blog/static/795458952012285400904/. Accessed on 7 August 2013.

  38. 38.

    Greenpeace, Information disclosure requests submitted to Zhuzhou EPB, 16 December 2009, unpublished document on file with the author.

  39. 39.

    Interview with NGO officer, 2 August 2010.

  40. 40.

    Zhuzhou EPB, Reply concerning Greenpeace’s environmental information disclosure request, 13 May 2010, unpublished document on file with the author.

  41. 41.

    Fu Dalin (傅达林), 用司法诉讼倒逼政府信息公开 (Judicial litigation as a reversed pressure to push forward government information disclosure) (Beijing qingnian bao 北京青年报 8 May 2008).

  42. 42.

    Hilson 2013.

  43. 43.

    Vanhala 2012, p. 527; Hilson 2002.

  44. 44.

    In China, the establishment of environmental courts have been happening and provided more opportunities for environmental protection litigation. See, Wang and Gao 2010.

  45. 45.

    Hilson 2002; Vanhala 2012, p. 527.

  46. 46.

    Liu and Liu 2011, pp. 284–285.

  47. 47.

    Ibid, p. 285.

  48. 48.

    Peerenboom 2002, p. 399.

  49. 49.

    Economy 2004, pp. 100–121; Liebman 2007; Peerenboom 2002, p. 424.

  50. 50.

    Interview with pollution victims, 9 May 2011.

  51. 51.

    Interview with lawyer, 6 May 2011.

  52. 52.

    Interview with lawyer, 30 May 2012.

  53. 53.

    Interview with lawyer, 23 May 2011.

  54. 54.

    Xu Kezhu (许可祝) et al (2011) 一起环境行政信息公开纠纷案的另类解决方式 (An alternative approach of solving an environmental information disclosure dispute) http://www.clapv.org/ZhiChiAnJian_content.asp?id=121&title=%D6%A7%B3%D6%B0%B8%BC%FE&titlecontent=PD_zhichianjian.. Accessed 8 September 2013.

  55. 55.

    Impact Law Firm (义派律师事务所) 2012 report, p. 46.

  56. 56.

    Ibid.

  57. 57.

    中华人民共和国行政诉讼法 (The Administrative Litigation Law of the People’s Republic of China, hereafter the AL Law), adopted at the 2ed session of the 7th People’s Congress on 4 April 1989 and promulgated by Order No.16 of the President of the PRC on 4 April 1989, effective as of 1 October 1990, art 2.

  58. 58.

    最高人民法院关于执行〈中华人民共和国行政诉讼法〉若干问题的解释 (The Judicial Interpretation on the Implementation of the Administrative Procedure Law, hereafter as the AL Judicial Interpretation), Fashi [2000] No. 8, 24 November 1999, entered into force 10 March 2000, art 12.

  59. 59.

    OGI Regulations, art 33; OEI Measures, art 26.

  60. 60.

    Li 2009, p. 43.

  61. 61.

    AL Judicial Interpretation, art 12. See, also Huang 2006, p. 8.

  62. 62.

    OGI Regulations, art 13.

  63. 63.

    Sun Nong v Zhuhai EPB, 广东省珠海市中级人民法院行政裁定书 (Guangdong Province Zhuhai City Intermediate People’s Court Administrative Ruling), (2009) 珠中法行终字 Zhuzhongfaxingzhongzi No. 50, 17 December 2009, pp. 14–15.

  64. 64.

    See, also, Qian 2009; Luo 2009.

  65. 65.

    Meng Jing, ‘To burn or not to burn, a hot topic’ (China Daily, 22 June 2010) http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2010-06/22/content_10000256.htm. Accessed 8 September 2013.

  66. 66.

    Zhang Shougang (张守刚), 高安屯环保反击战 (Gao’antun fighting for environmental protection) (Nandu zhoukan 南都周刊 20 April 2009) p. 308.

  67. 67.

    Wang Qiushi (王秋实) 高安屯垃圾焚烧场臭味“呛人”, 居民告环保局违规审批败诉 (Gao’antun Incinerator stinks, resident sued EPB but lost) (Jinghua shibao 京华时报, 22 May 2010).

  68. 68.

    医疗废物管理条例 (Medical Waste Management Regulations), adopted by the State Council on 4 June 2003, entered into effect on 16 June 2003, State Council Order No. 380.

  69. 69.

    Yang Zi v Beijing EPB, 北京市海淀区人民法院行政裁定书 (Beijing Haidian District People’s Court Administrative Ruling), (2010) 海行初字 (Haixingchuzi) No. 00093, 21 May 2010, p. 3.

  70. 70.

    Yang Zi v Beijing EPB, 北京市第一中级人民法院行政裁定书 (Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court Administrative Ruling), (2010) 一中行终字 (Yizhongxingzhongzi) No. 2464, 13 July 2010, p. 2.

  71. 71.

    Email discussion with lawyer, 30 July 2010.

  72. 72.

    Interview with NGO officer, 2 August 2010. See also, Jiang and Li 2009, pp. 14–15.

  73. 73.

    Fu Dalin (傅达林), 环保局法院为何“眷顾”垃圾焚烧厂(Why EPB and court biased towards waste incinerator) (Renmin wang 人民网, 23 May 2010).

  74. 74.

    Xia Jun, comment, Friends of Nature Open Environmental Information 3 Years Implementation Seminar, 27 April 2011; Interview with NGO officer, 2 August 2010.

  75. 75.

    Xia Jun, comment, Friends of Nature Open Environmental Information Three Years Implementation Seminar, 27 April 2011.

  76. 76.

    Zhang Ke (章轲), 中华环保联合会状告贵州省修文县环保局不履职 (ACEF sued Guizhou Xiuwen EPB for omission) (Diyi caijing ribao 第一财经日报 13 December 2011).

  77. 77.

    GONGOs are established by government agencies or institutions, thus, they differ from NGOs. See, Schwartz 2004, p. 36; Knup 1998, p. 11.

  78. 78.

    Ho 2008, p. 24.

  79. 79.

    Interview with NGO officer, 9 June 2012.

  80. 80.

    Impact Law Firm (义派律师事务所) 2012 report.

  81. 81.

    Yu v Anqing EPB, 安徽省安庆市迎江区人民法院行政判决书 (Anhui Province Anqing City Yingjiang District Court Administrative Judgment), 迎行初字 (Yingxingchuzi) No. 00006, 11 May 2012, p. 4.

  82. 82.

    Ibid.

  83. 83.

    Jiang and Li 2009, p. 14.

  84. 84.

    OGI Regulations, art 1.

  85. 85.

    Jiang and Li 2009, p. 14.

  86. 86.

    OEI Measures, art 1.

  87. 87.

    Mo and Lin (eds) 2008, p. 213.

  88. 88.

    Sun Nong v Zhuhai EPB, Guangdong Province Zhuhai City Intermediate People’s Court Administrative Ruling, Zhuzhongfaxingzhongzi No. 50, 17 December 2009, p. 14.

  89. 89.

    Mo and Lin (eds) 2008, p. 213; Jiang and Li 2009, p. 14.

  90. 90.

    ACEF v Xiuwen EPB, 贵州省清镇市人民法院行政判决书 (Guizhou Qingzhen People’s Court Administrative Litigation Judgment), (2012) 清环保初字 (Qinghuanbaochuzi) No. 1, 10 January 2012, p. 6.

  91. 91.

    Xie Yong v Jiangsu EPD, 江苏省南京市中级人民法院行政判决书 (Jiangsu Province Nanjing City Intermediate People’s Court Administrative Judgment), (2010) 宁行初字 (Ningxingchuzi) No. 26, 13 August 2012, p. 6.

  92. 92.

    Xie Yong v Jiangsu EPD, Jiangsu Province Nanjing City Intermediate People’s Court Administrative Judgment, (2010) 宁行初字 (Ningxingchuzi) No. 26, 13 August 2012, p. 9.

  93. 93.

    ACEF v Xiuwen EPB, Guizhou Qingzhen People’s Court Administrative Litigation Judgment, Qinghuanbaochuzi No. 1, 10 January 2012, p. 6.

  94. 94.

    Ibid, p. 7.

  95. 95.

    Xie Yong v Jiangsu EPD, Jiangsu Province Nanjing City Intermediate People’s Court Administrative Judgment, Ningxingchuzi No. 26, 13 August 2012, p. 7.

  96. 96.

    The translation is made by the Law School of Yale University.

  97. 97.

    Xu Taisheng v Shanghai EPB, 上海市黄埔区人民法院行政判决书 (Shanghai Huangpu District People’s Court Administrative Judgment), (2008) 黄行初字 (huangxingchuzi) No. 260, 15 December 2008, p. 3; Xu Taisheng v Shanghai EPB, 上海市黄埔区人民法院行政判决书 (Shanghai Huangpu District People’s Court Administrative Judgment), (2008) 黄行初字 (huangxingchuzi) No. 258, 15 December 2008, p. 3.

  98. 98.

    Xu Taisheng v Shanghai EPB, 上海第二中级人民法院行政判决书 (Shanghai No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court Administrative Judgment), (2009) 沪二中行终字 (huerzhongxingzhongzi) No. 36, 17 December 2009, p. 3; Xu Taisheng v Shanghai EPB, 上海第二中级人民法院行政判决书 (Shanghai No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court Administrative Judgment), (2009) 沪二中行终字 (Huerzhongxingzhongzi) No. 34, 17 December 2009, p. 3.

  99. 99.

    Xie Yong v Jiangsu EPD, Jiangsu Province Nanjing City Intermediate People’s Court Administrative Judgment, Ningxingchuzi No. 26, 13 August 2012, p. 7.

  100. 100.

    ACEF v Xiuwen EPB, Guizhou Qingzhen People’s Court Administrative Litigation Judgment, Qinghuanbaochuzi No. 1, 10 January 2012, p. 7.

  101. 101.

    Ibid, pp. 7–8.

  102. 102.

    Yu v Anqing EPB, Anhui Province Anqing City Yingjiang District Court Administrative Judgment, Yingxingchuzi No. 00006, 11 May 2012, pp. 4–5.

  103. 103.

    Vanhala 2011a, p. 6.

  104. 104.

    Interview with lawyer, 30 May 2012.

  105. 105.

    The Supreme People’s Court, 最高人民法院关于进一步发挥诉讼调解在构建社会主义和谐社会中积极作用的若干意见 (Several Opinions of the Supreme People's Court on further displaying the positive roles of litigation mediation in the building of a socialist harmonious society), 法发 (Fafa) [2007] No. 9, issued and effective 6 March 2007.

  106. 106.

    Although Google withdrew from China due to its disagreement with China’s Internet censorship, it still provides simplified Chinese service for Chinese Internet users via Hong Kong domain and server. Moreover, the author considers that Google in fact still provides better and accurate results than the biggest Chinese search engine Baidu.

  107. 107.

    Internet search conducted on 7 January 2013. The search term is in Chinese, it is 全国环保联合会诉修文环保局.

  108. 108.

    Bao Guiping and Kang Shuochen (包贵萍, 康烁辰), 2011年“中国十大公益诉讼案件”在京揭晓 (Ten most influential public interest lawsuits of 2011 brought to light in Beijing) (Minzhu yu fazhi wang 民主与法制网19 February 2012) http://www.mzyfz.com/html/1468/2012-02-19/content-294827.html. Accessed 8 August 2013.

  109. 109.

    Gong Jinxing and Wang Zhiqiu (龚金星、汪志球), 首例环境信息公开公益诉讼案审结 (First environmental information disclosure public interest litigation completes) (Renminwang-Renmin ribao 人民网-人民日报, 17 January 2012) http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/micro-reading/dzh/2012-01-17/content_4971498.html. Accessed 8 August 2013.

  110. 110.

    Internet search conducted on 7 January 2013. The search term is 于诉安庆环保局.

  111. 111.

    Internet search conducted on 7 January 2013. The search term is 谢勇诉江苏环保局.

  112. 112.

    Liu Jinmei (刘金梅) (2012) 中国垃圾焚烧第一案原告诉江苏省环保厅信息公开违法案胜诉 (First incinerator lawsuit in China plaintiff sued Jiangsu EPD and won) http://www.clapv.org/ZhiChiAnJian_content.asp?id=145&title=%D6%A7%B3%D6%B0%B8%BC%FE&titlecontent=PD_zhichianjian. Accessed 8 September 2013.

  113. 113.

    National People’s Congress, 环境保护法修正案(草案二次审议稿)条文 (Environmental Protection Law amendment) (second draft) (17 July 2013) http://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/xinwen/lfgz/flca/2013-07/17/content_1801189.htm. Accessed on 6 August 2013.

  114. 114.

    Ling Xin (凌馨), 再推环保公益诉讼 (Another look at environmental public interest litigation) (Caijing 财经, 4 November 2013).

  115. 115.

    Ho 2008, p. 23.

  116. 116.

    Ling Xin, Another look at environmental public interest litigation.

  117. 117.

    Paris 2010, p. 24.

  118. 118.

    Zemans 1983, 701.

  119. 119.

    Vanhala 2011a, p. 193.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful for the anonymous reviewers’ insightful comments and the editors’ helpful suggestions. An earlier manuscript of this paper was presented in a seminar organized by the Finnish Graduate Program of Contemporary Asian Studies in August 2013, and the annual conference of the European China Law Studies Association on 19–20 September 2013 at Oxford University. Many thanks are extended to the participants of the seminar and the conference for their valuable comments.

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Correspondence to Xinhong Wang.

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Wang, X. Addressing failures of environmental information disclosure through administrative lawsuits in China: the paradox of legal mobilization. China-EU Law J 3, 165–190 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12689-014-0043-y

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Keywords

  • Open government information
  • Environmental information disclosure
  • Administrative litigation
  • Legal mobilization
  • China