As many as 22 major dams and power stations under construction in China, including a key power facility at the controversial Three Gorges Dam, have slowed or stopped work pending an environmental review.
In the first instance of its kind, top Chinese leaders appear to be throwing their clout behind laws requiring environmental-impact statements for large energy-related projects.
Even if the projects, which total more than $14 billion and span 13 provinces, soon go back online, Beijing's public support of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), long considered a mere showpiece, seems an official nod to growing numbers of Chinese who support tougher policies to protect nature.
Energy-hungry China has embarked in recent years on a breakneck program of investment in power plants, adding to an already overheating economy. By enforcing policies requiring companies to account for environmental impact, the power sector may cool down a bit - one reason to allow SEPA to fine construction companies and demand they follow the law, according to an unusually frank South Metropolitan Daily editorial.
In the past decade, China's roaring double-digit growth, industrial output, and booming new-car sales have caused some of the worst air and water pollution in Asia.
So far, watchdogs like SEPA, despite being an arm of government, have not been given latitude to enforce any clean air and water laws.
Yet on Jan. 18, in a bit of savvy bureaucratic maneuvering, SEPA suddenly charged 30 construction projects with illegality, since they failed to submit impact statements.
Since then, most of the dams and hydroelectric projects have reportedly suspended work, according to the English-language China Daily.
The construction firm building the Three Gorges Dam project, after several days of balking, bent to an edict from the State Council. It stopped work on a 4,500-megawatt underground power facility, and a $5 billion dam called Xiluodu on the Yangtze River.
Analysts attribute a new attitude about the environment to deepening relations between figures like Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and young stars at SEPA, like its deputy director Pan Yue.
"I think this is a significant moment; it signifies a new consciousness about the environment," says Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Pan Yue is spearheading that move among elites, and SEPA clearly has the ear of [Premier] Wen Jiabao."
The environment is a popular grass-roots issue in China, one of the few issues the central government allows some public discussion about. Every top college in China has an active student environmental group. The government of President Hu Jintao, moreover, which has a "people first" platform, knows the environment has a special hold on the imagination of a broad range of Chinese - partly because many of the children of high-ranking are involved in nongovernmental environmental lobby groups.
Few analysts say Beijing is about to allow large-scale public works projects, a source of employment and energy, to be vetoed by a small agency.
Yet analysts agree the high profile push by SEPA is a signal - to reform-minded elites, a generation of younger educated Chinese, and policymakers in other countries where the environment gets top billing - that the environment will weigh more heavily in planning and decisionmaking.
"There are about 70 environmental groups doing things at the local level," says Nick Young of China Development Brief In Beijing, which follows voluntary groups in China. "These aren't just clubs, but are active - and effective. The environment is a sector where there are real are imaginative possibilities in China."
Moreover, the environmental lobby in China has been given space to air its views in the state-run media, and in smaller private newspapers - questioning whether enough public resources are being devoted to stopping pollution and protecting wildlife, for example.
The current bold move by SEPA took place at a time when scholars, writers, and "public intellectuals" have been further discouraged to express themselves freely. The SEPA initiative was given great official state media attention on Jan. 18, the day after former premier and Tiananmen legend Zhao Ziyang died after living under house arrest for 15 years. For two weeks after Zhao's death, authorities and police effectively shut down discussion about Zhao, even on the Internet.
"I think a lot of the clout that we've seen with SEPA and with the growing environmental movement in China is due to the media here," Mr. Young says.
"The public is surprised and has praised this bold move," editorializes Metropolitan News. "Not only are ordinary people not satisfied, but leaders are not satisfied [with the lack of reform in anti-pollution measures]."
Sources in Beijing say many leaders are genuinely worried about scientific studies and new analyses showing long-term harm from continuing the pace of unregulated toxic emissions and waste. Not long ago, Beijing announced that high standards for auto emissions.
In testimony before the US Congress in September, Ms. Economy targeted water as the most pressing issue: "More than three-quarters of the water flowing through China's urban areas is considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing," she stated. "Much of China's pollution stems from industrial waste water from paper and pulp mills, printing and dyeing factories, chemical plants and other small, unregulated township and village enterprises."
In the post-Jan. 18 blast of coverage in Chinese media about illegal power plants, much of the style and content of the rhetoric appears similar to that used to condemn official corruption. China Youth Daily, for example, a state-run newspaper, did stories pointing to the most "embarrassing" projects that were suspended.
The paper cited a chromium factory in Huanzhong County in Northwest Qinghai Province that was dumping horrific levels of toxins into nearby rivers. The factory was ordered to close last May. But new building facilities and operations quickly started up again in July.
"The person who approved the July project was the director of the local environmental protection bureau," the paper reported.
In December, the State Council of China restated the laws governing impact statements, and officials from SEPA conducted a set of swift studies in the field - then made up the list.
SEPA officials stated that those projects out of compliance, including a $5 billion hydro-power station in Sichuan Province, will pay fines of up to $24,000.