The Blacksmith Institute had ranked two Chinese cities among the world's top 10 polluted areas in 2007: Linfen, where unregulated industries based on local coal have produced the worst air quality in China, and Tianying, where lead processing plants contaminate the air and soil. While the Institute no longer compiles such lists, Fuller said "there is a lot of work going on internally in China" to clean up polluted areas.
"When you look at some of the stats, they're doing a pretty terrific job," Fuller said. "Air pollution has certainly improved dramatically. In the last 12 months [the focus has shifted] to the cleanup of polluted soil, which causes a lot of health problems."
For Watts, it's important to examine China's environmental problems in a geographic and historical perspective, and to consider how the nation is "trying to reinvent itself."
"China's environmental problems are far worse" than many assume," Watts said, but the country "is doing more to try and solve them than people give them credit for."
In the 11th Five-Year Plan for 2006-2011, China "for the first time set several environmental targets as the highest priority," Wang said, like reducing energy intensity by 20 percent and slashing pollution levels.
Studies released by government ministries in recent years, like the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Water Resources indicate there is a growing consciousness on the part of Chinese officials of the problem of pollution, which is "hugely important," Economy said.
On average China spends about 1.3 percent of GDP on environmental protection, she said, though scientists estimate that figure is not enough by half to keep the pollution problem from getting worse, let alone improve. Though it has grown in recent years, The Ministry of Environmental Protection still only has about 300 full time staff employees, compared with the 8 to 9 thousand employed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Economy said.
"Structurally addressing China's environmental challenge is largely a problem of resources and governance," Economy said. "On the investment side of things, they depend a lot on localities -- the power is really decentralized."
Since the late 1970s, China has had the environmental law framework that touches on almost all aspects of environmental protection, Wang said.
"The problem with the current framework is that a lot of the laws are too vague, don't set up specific requirements, or the enforcement is not strict," he said.
The primary enforcement of environmental laws and regulations is at the local level, but leaders face pressures to increase economic growth, sometimes at the expense of environmental protection. The factories that could bring jobs and wealth to communities may be very polluting, sometimes forcing leaders to decide between bolstering the economy or protecting the environment.
"The incentive structure for local officials is still largely to grow the economy at the expense of the environment," Economy said. "Some good things are happening, but it's still overwhelmed by the imperative of economic growth."
Wang said the system can be strengthened by adding "a component of central enforcement as well as giving more authority to the citizens" and allowing them to bring lawsuits on environmental grievances.