Circular of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on the 29th Batch of Guiding Cases – On the Public Interest Litigation Case Involving the Prosecution of Zhang and Two Others by the Shanghrao People’s Procuratorate in Jangxi Province for Intentional Damage to Giant Python Peak in Sanqing Mountain (Mainland China)

Di Wu

On May 27, 2021, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate published and circulated the 29th batch of guiding cases, among which the public interest litigation case involving the prosecution of Zhang and two others by the Shangrao People’s Procuratorate in Jiangxi Province for intentional damage to Giant Python Peak of Sanqing Mountain has a larger impact and is of certain guiding significance.  The specific facts of this case are provided below:

Facts of the case: Giant Python Peak, which is located in the core scenic area of Sanqing Mountain in Shangrao City of Jiangxi Province, is a geological relic of world-class geomorphological significance.  It was certified as the “world’s highest natural python peak” in 2017 and is thus considered an irreplaceable rare natural resource and a sustainable natural heritage with significant scientific, aesthetic and economic value.  On April 15, 2017, three individuals Zhang, Mao, and Zhang went to the Sanqing Mountain Scenic Spot to climb Giant Python Peak by repeatedly using electric drills to drill holes for placing rock bolts to deploy ropes.  It was found out during the investigation that Zhang and others placed 26 rock bolts in total during their ascent.  Public security authorities retained a group of experts who concluded that the steel in the 26 rock bolts would directly induce and aggravate the physical, chemical, and biological weathering process of Giant Python Peak.  There were at least 4 rock bolts placed in the thinnest portion (with a diameter of around 7 meters) of Giant Python Peak, which has resulted in new fissures that will accelerate the erosion of the granite column and may even cause it to disintegrate.  The use of rock bolts by Zhang and others in their climbing has caused permanent damage to Giant Python Peak and destroyed the naturalness, originality, and integrity of the natural heritage site.

Case analysis: The Shangrao People’s Procuratorate determined that the damaging acts of Zhang and co. have undermined the ecological environment and violated the environmental rights and interests of the general public.  Therefore, this case falls within the scope of public interest litigation involving the ecological environment.  Even as they were clearly aware of the prohibition against damaging scenic facilities, the three individuals deliberately engaged in destructive climbing that caused irreparable damage and serious negative impact, thereby resulting in a significant risk of accelerating the collapse of the mountain.  Since the three jointly planned this climb and coordinated with one another in the act, they meet the elements of joint tortfeasors and shall be held jointly and severally liable pursuant to the law.

In May 2018, a group of experts from Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics issued the Appraisal Report, which adopted the internationally accepted contingent valuation method (i.e., directly investigating and asking people about their willingness to pay for an environmental benefit improvement or resource protection measure in a hypothetical market situation, or their willingness to accept compensation for environmental or resource quality loss, and estimating the economic value of based on such willingness to pay or to be compensated) to appraise the value of the damage to Giant Python Peak.  The analysis concluded that the loss of ecological service value of Giant Python Peak as a result of this incident has a minimum threshold value of RMB 11.9 to 237 million.

On December 27, 2019, after considering the Appraisal Report as well as the economic condition of the three defendants and their ability to pay compensation, the Shangrao Intermediate People’s Court issued the first instance decision, which ordered the three defendants to jointly and severally pay RMB 6 million in compensation for the loss of environmental resources, RMB 150,000 for the expert appraisal fee, and make a public apology in the national media.  The two defendants named Zhang appealed.  On May 18, 2020, the Jiangxi Province High People’s Court rejected the appeal and affirmed the original decision.

Conclusions: The destruction of natural heritage and scenic spots falls within the scope of public interest litigation involving the “destruction of ecological environment and the protection of resources”, which enables procuratorial authorities to initiate public interest litigation in accordance with law.  The loss of the ecological service value of unique landscapes can be appraised by the “contingent valuation method”.  The results of the appraisal may be adduced in the form of an expert opinion and used as a basis of refernce for the court.