China has changed its environmental law for the first time in 25 years, instituting public oversight of companies and allowing unlimited fines against persistent polluters.
The move is a response to the country's environmental challenges and demands from the public for action.
The amendments passed by China's legislature, which go into effect on January 1, took three years to come about and went through four readings and two rounds of public consultation.
They include a new chapter titled Environmental Transparency and Public Participation, which requires local governments to publish blacklists of violators and major polluters to monitor their emissions, and to disclose this data to the public.
Before, low fines for polluting gave companies little incentive to carry out costly modifications to reduce pollutants. Now, if violators who are fined fail to rectify the problem, the fine can keep increasing to an unlimited amount. Executives in polluting companies could face up to 15 days of detention.
The amended law also allows registered non-governmental organisations that have been dealing with environmental issues for at least five years to sue heavy polluters.
The government was long indifferent to the environment as it pursued economic development. It has put in place measures intended to improve the country's air, soil and water and made more pollution data available to the public following mounting pressure from citizens, who have become more aware of environmental problems and health risks.
However, lax enforcement of existing standards has been a barrier to protecting the environment, as local governments have tended to pursue projects that generate high growth regardless of how polluting they are. To address that, the amended law says environmental quality should be a major factor in assessing officials' performances.
Environmental campaigner Ma Jun said the amended law contained "breakthroughs", in particular in stating that citizens have the right to know polluters' emissions data, which makes it harder for local officials to protect violators.
"If the data is made public it will be harder for those mayors to try to interfere with the enforcement" of environmental regulations, Ma said.
Earlier this month, the government released a years-long study showing nearly one-fifth of the country's farmland is contaminated with toxic metals including cadmium, nickel and arsenic. A week later, a ministry report said nearly 60% of groundwater at sites throughout China has excessive amounts of pollutants.