SEPA head Zhou Shengxian mentioned recently that there were over 50,000 disputes and protests about pollution last year and that they were increasing at a rate of almost 30% per year. (China Daily 5/4/06). Vice minister Pan Yue also said, as on previous occasions, that such issues are affecting social stability.
I cannot tell what the 50,000 number really means. The reporting is sufficiently ambiguous that it could be read as including both complaints by one person and complaints and dissatisfaction by hundreds or entire communities. It could also include letters about pollution violations and law suits. (This is probably the same problem that one encounters in evaluating the number of social unrest items that are reported by the government.) If complaints by single individuals are all included in the number, then the number does not look especially big or unusual, compared to the size of China and in comparison to the US. On the other hand, the fact that the number of such complaints is rising so quickly, at almost 30% per year, is probably of greater concern.
The comments were made at conference with local environment officials, where another SEPA vice minister (Zhang Lijun) openly referred to corruption as a cause of compliance problems and enforcement failures. As a result 3 new "environment supervision" centers, designed to strengthen enforcement, will be created in the northwest, northeast, and southwest regions of the country. These are in addition to such centers in east and south China. (Xinhua 5/4/06)