The Yangtze River conservation law, China’s first legislation on a specific river basin, took effect on March 1, 2021.
A seminar on Yangtze River conservation law was held in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, on Feb. 25.
“Legal support is needed to build an environmental resource carrying capacity that is compatible with the economic status of the Yangtze River basin,” said Wang Wenge, deputy director of the Research Institute of Environmental Law at the China Law Society. Previous water laws, water pollution prevention and control laws, environmental protection laws, and fishery laws have provided basic legal support for protecting the Yangtze River basin, yet the integrity and effectiveness of related legal systems still needs further improvement. The formulation of the Yangtze River conservation law meets the need of maintaining the ecological security of the basin and the country, giving a more solid legal guarantee for the basin’s economic and social development.
According to Cheng Changchun, director of the Jiangsu Yangtze River Economic Belt Research Institute at Nantong University, the new conservation law upholds the strategic positioning of ecological priorities and green development, and highlights the basic requirements of joint protection and the importance of avoiding large-scale development. The law formulates targeted institutional measures from the basin’s systematic and distinctive characteristics.
The conservation law’s implementation marks a new stage for the legal protection and governance of the Yangtze River, which is crucial for maintaining water security and the ecological security of the basin and the country, and for promoting green development and the sustainable development of the Chinese nation, Cheng concluded.
Song Chao, deputy dean of the Economics and Management School at Nantong University, noted that the law prioritizes “coordination,” mentioning it a total of 14 times. He proposed building a coordinated mechanism for the Yangtze River basin that is guided by the State Council, striving to change “decentralized” into “coordinated” governance. This represents a major reform in China’s river basin management mechanism and a conservation law highlight.
Different from traditional legislation that locates river basins as watershed areas or catchment areas, the new law defines the Yangtze River basin as a catchment area comprising the main stream, tributaries, and lakes, involving county-level administrative regions of 19 provinces (including autonomous regions and municipalities). This means that the Yangtze River basin is a relatively independent management space unit in the law, which is comprised of, but extends beyond, the space of the Yangtze River water system, said Liu Jiaqi, director of the Research Center for Environmental Resources and Energy Law at Liaoning University.
Wang Xiaoyan, a professor from the Economics and Management School at Nantong University, noted the exemplary nature of special legal systems, rules, and mechanisms established by the Yangtze River conservation law. These interventions demonstrate a universal system of protection and development, which can be applied to other water systems. As such, the law performs a leading role in the holistic protection of ecological environments and green development, as well as the institutionalization of regional cooperation mechanisms.
A law’s basic principles dominate its formation and development, establish its basic system, and concern its legislation, revision, implementation, and application, said Jin Hai, a professor from the School of Law at Hohai University. When implementing the Yangtze River conservation law, the principles of “prioritizing ecology” and “green development” should be viewed as interconnected—development is the purpose of ecological protection, and prioritizing ecology is a means of development.
The principle of “government-led and pluralistic governance” requires strengthening responsibilities of the government and related departments, fully activating all parties’ positivity and their respective roles, Jin continued. In addition, “coordinated cooperation” requires enhanced coordination and collaboration among departments from various localities.
The Yangtze River conservation law focuses primarily on the management and control of all national spaces within the river basin, full spatial-temporal and multi-element system governance, and the construction and implementation of support systems. In addition to the timely formulation and promulgation of supporting regulations, the law’s implementation demands the review of relevant laws, rules and regulations, and normative documents, Liu added.
In order to build a coordinated mechanism for the Yangtze River basin, a special agency for coordinated governance and an executive agency should be established, based on the theory of field law. Efforts should also be made to build and improve professional information platforms, utilizing administrative approaches, and establishing circuit courts concerning cases related to the Yangtze River. In addition, we should dismantle barriers caused by administrative divisions, and identify the rights and responsibilities of all parties, charting a specific road map and timetable, Song concluded.