With fury over water pollution in Weifang, Shandong Province, continuing to grow amid a recent online campaign accusing local chemical factories of discharging untreated waste water deep underground, a snapshot of an emergency notice has spread online, in which local environmental authorities apparently informed these factories of upcoming undercover investigations by reporters and asked them to handle waste discharge properly.
Authorities claimed that they had investigated 715 companies, while no evidence supported the online accusations. They also denied that they were helping chemical companies avoid media scrutiny.
However, netizens are still doubtful, as online pictures have been vivid enough to convince them that water pollution does exist. Meanwhile, a series of environmental incidents in various parts of the country exposed by the media and online whistleblowers recently are showing how serious China's environmental problems and how insufficient authorities' efforts are.
The public has expressed mounting worries about the detrimental effects of environmental pollution. They also demand authorities give convincing explanations when an environmental case is exposed. However, in the Weifang case, the environmental authorities' response was overshadowed by the mistrust of the public toward them.
This demonstrates the plight faced by China's environmental authorities. While enjoying the breakneck development of the past 30 years, Chinese people are also paying a huge environmental price for it. With more awareness than ever of the problem in recent years, many blame environmental watchdogs for failing to do their jobs.
There have been cases where authorities avoided their responsibilities and the public questioned the transparency of their information. Many NGO experts dedicated to environmental protection work have complained about authorities' unwillingness to cooperate and their refusal to provide accurate data. One example occurred at the end of 2011 when the public became increasingly vocal in asking the Beijing municipal environmental bureau to release PM2.5 data, an indicator of air quality.
More recently, Zhou Shengxian, Minister for Environmental Protection, said at a press conference in November that the government will increase transparency and public involvement in decisions regarding large projects with a potential environmental impact.
Meanwhile, although online campaigns have proven successful in fighting corruption and exposing environmental problems, they are not systemic successes.
Environmental authorities are still the backbone of tackling environmental problems. Only by establishing a legal system under which the voice of environmental watchdogs is authoritative and credible can China's environmental protection work be carried out effectively and win public support.