Jul 05, 2012 05:17 PM

Blame Public's Lack of Input for Protests, Lawyer Says

A large-scale demonstration in Shifang, in China's southwestern Sichuan Province, against a copper refinery plant led to its cancellation after an initial government crackdown on protesters.

Beijing-based lawyer Xia Jun said it was not unusual for local governments to scrap industrial projects after public demonstrations. But just how long the ban will last depends on who is in office.

Xia, an expert on environmental litigation, said a vicious cycle has arisen in these cases. It begins with opaque decision-making over the location for a project with potential pollution hazards. An environmental assessment is then done without the public's knowledge. Construction begins, a massive public protest occurs and the government is forced to call the project off.

Xia said there are three reasons behind the cycle: First, the public is unable to resolve these issues through legal channels. Second, there is a critical lack of non-governmental organizations that can serve as mediators between the public and the government. Last, there is a growing sense that direct action is the only way to address such public concerns given recent successes.

The solution is more public involvement at an early stage, Xia said. He suggested the government strengthen oversight in environmental impact assessments for industrial projects and invite public comments. Courts must also be permitted to hear lawsuits against government-approved projects, Xia said.

"Individuals are currently not entitled to take legal action against plans issued by governments," Xia said. Under such circumstances, individuals can only take direct action by protesting projects on a case-by-case basis.

"It's rare for an environmental case to be won in the courts and addressed only through legal means," Xia said. A court victory is typically the result of both litigation and public protests.

Xia said environmental NGOs must be permitted to connect government officials to public sentiment. He added that making progress on environmental cases would also involve cross-regional environmental courts and the enhancement of judicial independence.

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