China grants NGOs more power to sue those that flout environmental protection laws

BEIJING (AFP) - China on Wednesday granted non-governmental organisations (NGOs) more power to sue those that flout environmental protection laws, the country's highest court said, as Beijing steps up efforts to curb pollution that regularly chokes major cities.

NGOs that work to fight polluters judicially will gain special status and have court fees reduced, the Supreme People's Court said on its website. They will also be allowed to sue companies or individuals across China, regardless of where the NGO is based.

The new rules came into force on Wednesday, the court said, adding that they were issued "in response to questions on the matter".

A side effect of the country's meteoric economic rise of recent decades has been severe pollution in major cities, leading to increased public dissatisfaction that has unnerved the ruling Communist Party.

Recent studies have shown that roughly two-thirds of China's soil is estimated to be polluted, and that 60 per cent of underground water is too contaminated to drink.

China is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases and many firms cut regulatory corners in the face of corruption and politically weak local environmental protection bureaux.

But despite the increased opportunities for NGOs, they face intense government scrutiny in China and those that run afoul of the authorities can be shuttered.

China's rubber-stamp legislature is currently considering a bill that would increase oversight of foreign NGOs looking to operate in the country, the official Xinhua news agency reported last month.

Charges of "illegal fundraising" are frequently used to shut businesses that authorities deem politically inconvenient.

But there are signs the government is willing to accommodate lawsuits brought by environmental NGOs.

Last month, six Chinese companies were fined a record 160 million yuan (S$34 million) for discharging tens of thousands of tonnes of waste chemicals into rivers after being sued by a local environmental NGO.

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