20080318-greenpeace in china.jpg
Greenpeace in China
China lacks sophisticated environmental movements like those found in the West, nonetheless groups of people have rallied together to save the home of the Yunnan golden monkey from being logged; shut down a thousand paper mills on the filthy Huai River; and closed a tire-recycling factories in Tangshan that produced toxic clouds that were blown towards an elementary school only 500 meters away from the factory.

In the mid 1990s there were only a handful of environmental groups now there are thousands. A number of small grassroots environmental groups have sprung up in urban areas and at universities. They have been allowed to develop while those promoting religious freedom and human rights have not because their goals are supported the government who also want to reduce pollution and improve the environment.

Faced with an ecological crisis, the Chinese government is slowly enacting new environmental regulations, but it is the country’s increasingly influential green movement that is enforcing them. “Environmental activism has led to more aggressive action on pollution control,” says Jennifer Turner of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Andrew Grant wrote in Discover magazine, “The green movement is empowered by China’s bottom line. It is estimated that the country is losing some 8 percent of its wealth each year to pollution, with the toll including everything from crops destroyed by acid rain to spiraling health costs due to poor air and water quality. With the scale of the crisis clear, a government notorious for throwing activists in prison is allowing environmentalists an active role. [Source: Andrew Grant, Discover magazine, March 18, 2011]

Well-Known environmentalists in China include Tan Kai, a computer technician who tried register the environmental group Green Watch, and was put on trial for stealing state secrets; and Liu Futang, who spoke out against forest destruction on Hainan Island, and was convicted of crimes. In July 2009, Chinese environmental activist Sun Xiaodi and his daughter were jailed for leaking information about a uranium mine. Sun had worked at the mine and has campaigned against nuclear contamination and for labor rights

Websites and Sources: China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection (MEP) english.mee.gov.cn EIN News Service’s China Environment News einnews.com/china/newsfeed-china-environment Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) cepf.org.cn/cepf_english ; ; China Environmental News Blog (last post 2011) china-environmental-news.blogspot.com ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) geichina.org ; Greenpeace East Asia greenpeace.org/china/en ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles chinadigitaltimes.net ; International Fund for China’s Environment ifce.org .

Grassroots Environmental Activism in China

Harold Thibault of Le Monde wrote: “Li Wei, 18 (not her real name), doesn't seem like a dissident. She is more focused on her accounting studies, her friends on the social networks and chatting with her sister. Nevertheless, she took part in a demonstration last month in front of the Chinese Communist party offices that degenerated into violent clashes with police. The demonstrators gathered at dawn in Qidong, a small coastal town north of Shanghai. By noon, the local government headquarters were occupied and files were being thrown out of the windows. In the heat of the moment the party secretary's shirt was ripped off. "We have to get mobilised to protect the environment, it's our home town," explained Li, from her parents' restaurant. [Source: Harold Thibault, Le Monde via The Guardian, August 21 2013 //\]

“Protests against pollution have multiplied in China as people become better informed and more concerned about the heavy ecological cost of economic development. Even state media now stresses the environment is a priority for China. Young people use micro-blogging to pass on the word. "People understand that the fight against pollution is a personal right, for there are very few places in the world where industrialisation has had such a massive and direct impact on such a large number of people," said environmental activist Ma Jun. //\

“In Qidong, locals were protesting against plans by a Japanese-owned paper mill to build a wastewater pipeline close to a small port. "Many people earn a living from fishing here. That project jeopardised their livelihoods," said Li. She had learned about it on an internet forum and felt she had to do something. "Protecting the environment is our generation's responsibility, we have a better understanding about these issues." //\

“Oji, the plant's owners, had stated that the waste would be treated before being discharged into the sea but the locals are sceptical, convinced that they are not being told the truth about the extent of the pollution – let alone the outcome of the demonstrations. The local hospital reported that a dozen people were treated for light wounds, but rumours say that three people were killed in the clashes. The government is concerned by these demonstrations. An editorial in the People's Daily the communist party organ, stated that "the public is rapidly becoming aware of environmental issues and its rights", and went on to accuse local governments of failing to consult the people in such cases, but without suggesting any real alternatives. //\

“According to Yang Guobin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who researches environmental activism, the government's response was typical of the Chinese leadership in President Hu Jintao's era. "The government's response is typical of their 'wei wen' approach [the policy of maintaining stability at all costs] and stopping any widescale demonstrations, by force if necessary. But should state coercion fail, the government will immediately make some concessions to prevent the movement from escalating. In all cases, it acts fast," summed up Yang. //\

Li Wei regrets that the protest degenerated. "It went too far, the local government offices suffered a great deal of damage. That's a waste, because the government's money is the people's money." But it was difficult for people to co-ordinate better. Official requests to hold the protest were turned down and the only environmental NGOs countenanced by the government are tolerated precisely because they steer clear of any confrontation. "In future we will have to find a mechanism for consultation between the various parties concerned prior to any new industrial project," said Ma, the environmental activist. //\

“At the crossroads in the centre of Qidong, news of the people's victory was splashed across a massive advertising screen, where the government statement announced that the wastewater project was to be abandoned. Nevertheless, the government bussed in anti-riot police from around the province, just in case. Thousands of blue-uniformed police were stationed in the city while the khaki-clad armed police units in helmets and wielding truncheons, blocked all the streets in the centre. For Li, who had never taken part in a demonstration before, this was a reality check. Not because of the local police intervention – she heard Qidong police slipping in the occasional "jia you!" (go on!), an expression more commonly used to encourage athletes – but the ensuing state repression. "They pulled us by the hair. They slapped one girl in the face," she exclaimed, before switching to English: "I really wanted to say to them, 'Fuck you!'" //\

Environmental Groups in China

Some of the biggest Chinese environmental groups are based in Hong Kong. They include Greenpeace East Asia, Green Power, Hong Kong and Earth Care, Hong Kong. Greenpeace has offices and run programs in China and is widely quoted in the Chinese press. It is running an aggressive campaign to persuade consumers not to buy furniture made with rain-forest wood, refrain from eating shark-fin soup and not waste energy. More than 3,500 environmental organizations had legal status in China in 2011.

Andrew Grant wrote in Discover magazine, “ While activists there are not as vocal as their counterparts in Europe or the United States, they have made an impact by encouraging transparency and pressuring local governments and industries to adhere to new national regulations. Through a program called the Green Choice Alliance, environmental groups publish lists of companies in violation of environmental regulations and offer to conduct a third-party audit if a company chooses to clean up its act. Last year, under the supervision of environmental groups, independent auditors found that Fuguo’s Shanghai leather factory had rectified its major violations and reduced gas emissions. [Source: Andrew Grant, Discover magazine, March 18, 2011]

From 2005 to 2009, China cut its sulfur dioxide emissions by between 22 million and 25.5 million tons. Clearly there is still a long way to go, but Turner says these groups will force the government to keep its foot on the pedal. “The challenges China faces are just mind-boggling,” she says, “but these groups are pushing the government in the right direction.”

The environmental group Beijing Rainbow Peace Environment Research Center filed an application with Beijing’s Industry and Commerce Bureau to be registered as a private company. Greenpeace hopes to gain a foothold in China through the organization. The Nature Conservancy is active in the Khampa region of western Yunnan and Sichuan. The Green Earth Volunteers is a movement founded by Wang Yongchen, a reporter with China National Radio. The group has been very active in fighting the Nu River dam project.

The Global Environmental Institute (GEI) is a home-grown, locally-run environmental NGO that acts sort of like a think tank and has been working with the central government and party schools to teach and develop environmental courses. It is also involved in supporting wildlife preserves and promoting energy-saving technology like “biogas converters’ that are used by Tibetan villagers to produce fuel for heating and cooking from yak and cattle dung.

China’s Citizen Environmental Enforcers

Andrew Grant wrote in Discover magazine, “In September 2009, a leather factory in Shanghai owned by the Fuguo company hosted an unlikely gathering: an open house for residents, journalists, and environmental groups to discuss the company’s air pollution violations. In a country long known for secrecy and environmental disregard, such an event would have been unheard of just a few years before. But the company’s hand had been forced by newly assertive Chinese environmental groups, which reported the factory’s violations and brought them to the attention of Timberland, the U.S. shoe and clothing seller that is one of Fuguo’s biggest customers. [Source: Andrew Grant, Discover magazine, March 18, 2011]

Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, in Baotou, a steelmaking center whose mines also supply half the planet's rare earth minerals, “I found Ding Yaoxian ensconced in the headquarters of the nonprofit Baotou City Environment Federation....Director Ding is one of the most cheerful and engaging Chinese I've ever met; he's needed every bit of charisma to build his association into a real force, numbering by his account a million area citizens. Issued little green identity cards, they serve as a kind of volunteer police force. "If people from the association see someone spilling trash, they go and sit on their doorstep," Ding said. "The government can't have eyes everywhere. A voluntary organization can put more pressure on. It can shame." [Source: Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

“But the campaigns the group focuses on most of the time make clear how nascent environmental concern in China still is. They've handed out a million reusable shopping bags — but also hundreds of thousands of small folding paper cups, so that people will stop spitting on the street. One minor victory: When showing those hundreds of thousands of new condo units, real estate agents used to hand customers plastic booties to go over their dirty shoes; now they supply washable cloth socks. The association has tried to introduce the concept of garage sales, in a country where secondhand goods carry a stigma. And members have launched a big effort to teach Inner Mongolians to smile. "In the West people are happy and smiling, and that makes people feel positive," Ding said. His deputy, Feng Jingdong, added, "We tell them, Use your personality to get people to enjoy themselves instead of using resources." The three of us were eating a delicious lunch at a nearby restaurant (lamb is the staple here), and when we were finished, Ding made sure to ask for a doggie bag. "That's one of our campaigns," he said. "Before, it felt like you lost face if you did that."

Religious Revival Fuels Environmental Activism

Javier C. Hernández wrote in the New York Times: China’s “religious revival is helping fuel an environmental awakening. Spiritual leaders are invoking concepts like karma and sin in deriding the excesses of economic development. Religious followers are starting social service organizations to serve as watchdogs against polluters. Advocates are citing their faith to protest plans to build factories and power plants near their homes. “Certainly it is a very powerful force,” said Martin Palmer, the secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a group that works with Chinese spiritual leaders. “People are asking, ‘How do you make sense of your life?’ An awful lot are looking for something bigger than themselves, and that is increasingly the environment.” [Source: Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, July 12, 2017]

“The Chinese government, which regulates worship and limits activism, has so far tolerated the rise of religious environmentalists. President Xi Jinping has championed the study of Chinese traditions, including Taoism and Confucianism, in part to counter the influence of Western ideas in Chinese society. Mr. Xi, in articulating the so-called Chinese dream, has called for a return to China’s roots as an “ecological civilization” — a vision he has described as having “clear waters and green mountains” across the land.

“Many spiritual leaders are also energized by what they see as an opportunity for China to become a global leader on environmental issues.“We all live on earth together — we are not isolated,” Abbot Yang Shihua, a Taoist monk, said: “As Taoists, we have to work to influence people in China and overseas to take part in ecological protection.” “Taoist officials have also spoken up at national leadership meetings in recent years, calling on the government to take more action to prevent environmental catastrophes. “The abbot acknowledged that it might seem strange for Taoists, who practice a philosophy of wu wei, or inaction, to be leading a call for change. Still, he said it was important to set an example. “Taoism has almost 2,000 years of history — environmental protection isn’t new for us,” he said. “We have to take action.”

“Environmentalism is infusing other religions in China as well, inspiring Buddhists, Christians and Muslims to take action. In Nanjing, Li Yaodong, 77, a retired government worker and a Buddhist, is the founder of a nonprofit called Mochou, or “free of worries,” dedicated to cleaning up polluted lakes. Mr. Li said that he saw parallels between his faith and protecting the environment. He leads by example, wearing secondhand clothes given to him by his children and collecting used staples to send back to factories. “From an environmental protection perspective, saving means reducing carbon emissions,” he said. “From a Buddhist perspective, it means accumulating merits and doing good deeds.”

“Muslims and Christians are also speaking up on environmental issues. Shen Zhanqing, a pastor who works for the Amity Foundation, a Christian charity, said many church members felt inspired by religion to help protect the environment. The foundation has held study groups on issues like reducing carbon emissions and climate change, and it encourages members to take buses to church. “The decadence of human beings has destroyed the environment in China,” Pastor Shen said. “Our purpose is to protect God’s creation.”

Mao Mountains: an Example of Religion-Driven Environmental Activism

Reporting from Mao Mountain, Javier C. Hernández wrote in the New York Times: Far from the smog-belching power plants of nearby cities, on a hillside covered in solar panels and blossoming magnolias,Yang Shihua speaks of the need for a revolution. Mr. Yang, the abbot of Mao Mountain, a sacred Taoist site in eastern China, has grown frustrated by indifference to a crippling pollution crisis that has left the land barren and the sky a haunting gray. So he has set out to spur action through religion, building a $17.7 million eco-friendly temple and citing 2,000-year-old texts to rail against waste and pollution. “China doesn’t lack money — it lacks a reverence for the environment,” Abbot Yang said. “Our morals are in decline and our beliefs have been lost.”“

“Mao Mountain, with its stretches of untouched land, stands as a monument to nature. Chongxi Wanshou, Abbot Yang’s eco-friendly temple, opened in August 2016. Its 20 acres include an organic vegetable garden. Nearby is a giant statue of Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, who is worshiped here as a “green god.” Bees’ nests hang undisturbed, and signs remind passers-by that branches and trees are synonymous with life.

“The mountain’s spiritual leaders say they are seeking to define a distinctly Chinese type of environmentalism, one that emphasizes harmony with nature instead of Western notions of “saving the earth.” Xuan Jing, a Taoist monk with a black beard, said Western notions of the environment were focused on treating symptoms of a problem, not the underlying disease. “You must cure the soul before you can cure the symptoms,” he said. “The root lies with human’s desires.” “Humans follow the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows Taoism, Taoism follows nature.”

“At Mao Mountain, the monks gather each morning to read ancient texts and to write calligraphy next to the trees and stones. Hundreds of visitors climb the stairs each day to pay respect to Lao-tzu. To limit pollution, they are prohibited from burning more than three sticks of incense each. Abbot Yang devotes much of his time to persuading local officials across China to set aside areas for natural protection, an unpopular idea in many parts. He has also worked to attract young, wealthy urbanites to Taoism. Many of them are eager for a spiritual cause and have responded warmly to Taoist leaders’ embrace of environmentalism.

Environmentalists and the Chinese Press

The local and national Chinese press has been very aggressive in uncovering environmental problems and mobilizing forces to go after polluters. Local newspapers have broken stories about cancer villages, which have been picked up by television networks and broadcast nationwide. In some cases the revelations have been praised by government officials. In other cases the revelations have been embarrassing or hurt investments by officials, and the sources of the stories have been harassed or jailed. The China Environment News reports totally on environment issues and has been active in forming environmental groups.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “The Chinese state news media published aggressive reports on what they described as the sickening and dangerous air pollution in Beijing and other parts of northern China, indicating that popular anger over air quality had reached a level where Communist Party propaganda officials felt that they had to allow the officially sanctioned press to address the growing concerns of ordinary citizens. The wide coverage appears to be in part a reaction to the conversation that has been unfolding on Chinese microblogs, where residents of northern China have been discussing the pollution nonstop in recent days. “I’ve never seen such broad Chinese media coverage of air pollution,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, a business consultant in Beijing who tracks the Chinese news media. “From People’s Daily to China Central Television, the story is being covered thoroughly, without trying to put a positive spin on it.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 14, 2013 ~~]

“People’s Daily, the official party mouthpiece, published a front-page signed editorial on under the headline “Beautiful China Starts With Healthy Breathing.” “The seemingly never-ending haze and fog may blur our vision,” it said, “but makes us see extra clearly the urgency of pollution control and the urgency of the theory of building a socialist ecological civilization, revealed at the 18th Party Congress.”

“China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper, published a scathing signed commentary under the headline “Lack of Responsive Actions More Choking Than the Haze and Fog.” The commentary questioned basic economic policies and the China growth model: “This choking, dirty and poisonous air forces the Chinese to rethink the widespread, messy development model.” Global Times, a newspaper that often defends the party, said in an editorial that the government in the past had erred by releasing pollution information in a “low-key way.” It said: “In the future, the government should publish truthful environmental data to the public. Let society participate in the process of solving the problem.” ~~

Ma Jun

Ma Jun is one of China’s best known environmental activists. He is the author of “China’s Water Crisis” and founder and director of an NGO called the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. He is frequently quoted in Western press on a wide range of environmental issues. In 2006, Ma was selected by Time magazine as one of the “100 people who shape our world.” A tribute was written by actor Edward Norton.

On his activities in the mid 2010s, Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times: “In his offices in central Beijing on a recent afternoon, Ma Jun, moved his mouse over a computer screen showing a map of real-time air emissions from more than 4,600 Chinese factories. The red rectangles, one for each factory, overlapped one another like badly laid mosaic tiles. In all, 270 factories across China were shown to be exceeding emissions on the map on the institute’s website, probably a fraction of the total number of polluting factories in China. But data itself is an improvement, he said. “Logging emissions is an important step in securing the transparency that China needs to solve its pollution problems, Mr. Ma argues. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, December 16, 2016]

In an interview with the New York Times, Ma talked about the considerable progress he sees in the Chinese government’s approach to air pollution, but also how concerns about social unrest continued to constrain discussion of pollution’s damage to public health. He said: “Last weekend, the police broke up a small group of people wearing masks at an antipollution protest in the southwestern city of Chengdu. Then reports spread that some schools had told students and teachers not to wear masks and to trust the government to solve the problem. Is wearing antipollution masks illegal? I think the government is not against people wearing masks, but if the masks become a sign of protest, then that’s another matter. I think the government didn’t mean to ban people from wearing masks in Chengdu but was afraid of the protest.

“Schools in Beijing” have had “discussions whether classrooms should be equipped with air purifiers. Some schools didn’t want to use purifiers. But whether to equip the classrooms with air purifiers or not is also a technical issue. In some schools, old schools especially, the electrical systems can’t cope with so many air purifiers running at the same time. And I don’t think it would be affordable for the government.

Ma Jun's Social Media App That Shame Polluters

Ma Jun and Chinese environmentalists at the the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs introduced the computer and phone app described above in the mid 2010s that showed who was polluting the air in different locations in China. David Lauter wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Displayed on a tablet, the app shows a map of northeastern China covered with large orange circles, each representing one of the country's major polluters, reporting its emissions in real time.The data come from automated monitoring equipment the government has installed at about 10,000 plants around the country. Ma and his colleagues made that information available to millions of Chinese on their own computers and ubiquitous mobile devices. “The move is part of an ambitious effort by environmentalists to use data and social media to leverage the power of public opinion in a country that lacks other routes to achieve social change, such as elections or an independent judiciary. [Source: David Lauter, Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2014]

China has many laws against pollution, Ma said but "enforcement is weak" because the cost of committing violations is too low. Many of the worst polluters are state-owned companies or have close ties to regional officials. Among the worst offenders are firms such as Tianjin Pipe Group, China's largest producer of crude-oil pipelines, which recently ranked as the region's top source of airborne particulates, and the Dezhou Kaiyuan power plant in Shandong province, southeast of Beijing, which topped the list for sulfur dioxide, emitting seven times the national limit.

“Particularly at the local and provincial level, officials suffer from a "lack of motivation" to pursue serious polluters, Ma said. Public "transparency is one of the very few options we have" to "drive enforcement," he said. “If the public understands exactly where the pollution is coming from, "it becomes risky for governors and mayors to interfere," Ma said. Already, he and his colleagues have seen progress. Since they began publicizing factory emission levels, about 200 major polluters have contacted them to discuss their cleanup plans, he said.

Friends of Nature in China

The Beijing-based Friends of Nature (FON) is China's oldest environmental non-government organization and was China's only true homegrown environmental group in the early 2010s. Founded in 1993 by Professor Liang Congjie to resurrect the Taoist respect and love of nature, it has around 500 members, many of them with connections to the Chinese press. Friends of Nature It has been involved in saving chirus in Qinghai, protecting golden monkeys in Yunnan, preventing deforestation in Sichuan, and promoting environmental education in schools. Most of their funding comes from Western sources. Liang needed a government agency to support his group. After being turned down by National Environmental Protection Agency he was approval by the Ministry of Culture by explaining to them he wanted to establish an Academy of Green Culture.

Liang Congjie (1932-2010) founded the country's first legally recognized environmental protection organization, Friends of Nature, in 1994. Congjie's grandfather was philosopher and reformer Liang Qichao (1873-1929), who was exiled to Japan for 14 years after the short-lived Hundred Days' Reform in 1898. The campaign aimed to reinvent China as a constitutional monarchy and set it on the path to modernization. [Source: Yang Guang, China Daily, May 19, 2011]

Qichao's son, Liang Sicheng (1901-72) founded the architecture department at Tsinghua University in 1946 and wrote the country's first modern architectural history book. Hailed as the "father of modern Chinese architecture", he was persecuted and denounced during the Cultural Revolution" (1966-76) for his unsuccessful campaign to preserve Beijing's ancient city walls.

Liang Congjie, who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution" believed "social commitment" was the thread that bound the generations of his family. Qichao emphasized the term in a speech he delivered at Tsinghua University in 1914 and it was later incorporated into the university's motto.

Sad Story of Wu Lihong, the Lake Tai Activist

Wu Lihong is a peasant-turned activist that was hailed as an environmental hero for his efforts to publicize the polluting of Tai Lake, China’s third largest lake, by chemical factories. In April 2007, he was detained on trumped up charges of extortion and blackmail. Wu worked for a while as a salesman. He spent more than a decade trying to draw attention to the condition of Lake Tai. William Wan wrote in Washington Post, “The story of Tai Lake is a story of high-level promises and lower-level reneging, of economic interests superceding environmental ones. And it is an illustration of China's awkward relationship with environmental activists, who challenge the government's authority but are often the loudest force pushing its new environmental priorities on the local level. No one knows this story better than Wu Lihong. For almost two decades, Wu — a peasant living along the lake — waged a one-man campaign to clean it up. He kept track of the thousands of factories springing up along its shores and took pictures of the untreated waste they discharged into the lake. He mailed water samples to inspectors, called TV stations and spoke out in the face of threats from factory bosses and local leaders. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, October 29, 2010]

“His actions cost him his job, threatened his marriage and landed him in prison for three years. After he got out of prison he returned home to find the lake virtually unchanged. At that time, with no job prospects and few friends willing to risk a visit, he spent much of his time alone at home, mulling over what he has sacrificed — whether it was worth it, and whether he should continue.” To hear Wu's story firsthand is to witness the paranoia he now lives in. A short, baby-faced man, Wu, 42, assumes his cellphone is tapped and prefers meeting strangers in obscure spots outside town. After agreeing to take a reporter to his home, Wu pulls up his shorts to reveal a two-inch scar on his inner thigh. He said he got it a few weeks ago by the lake when two thugs attacked him with a knife. He points to rounder scars along his arm and his hands — cigarette burns, he said, from police interrogations.” "At first, there were other villagers reporting the pollution, too," said Han Yaobing, 60, who was one of them. "But everyone gave up under the pressure of authorities. He was the only one left." After Chinese and foreign media picked up his story, Wu became a national hero and by 2005 was being praised by Chinese and international organizations. That year, China's highest-ranking legislative body, the National People's Congress, declared him one of China's top 10 environmental activists and flew him to a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.”

Wu was sentenced to in jail on trumped charges around the time of the algae bloom in 2007. At the time of his arrest he was preparing to go to Beijing with photographs and other documentation of dumping by chemical factories in the lake. Wu had been particularly outraged by the designation of Yixing, the home of many chemical factories, as a “Model City for Environmental Protection.” Wu's conviction was based on a confession that Wu said was coerced with torture and five straight days of sleep deprivation.

In 2005, Beijing lauded him for his work trying to protect the lake.The exact charges changed several times, and most were ultimately dropped. In the end, Wu's conviction on two charges of blackmail and fraud relied heavily on his confession, which Wu says he signed after being hung by the arms for five days and beaten with branches. While he was in prison, authorities put his wife and daughter under 24-hour surveillance. Shortly before Wu's release, the guards in front of his house were replaced by three traffic cameras erected on the single-lane road leading to his farmhouse.”

China’s Greta Thunberg

Ou Hongyi, also known by her English name Howey Ou, is a young climate activist in China who organises the school strike for climate in Guilin in southern China. She has calls climate change “the biggest existential crisis facing mankind” and has been ostracized and questioned by the police in China for her actions. Steven Lee Myer wrote in the New York Times: “Ou Hongyi stopped going to school after watching Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary on the looming climate catastrophe, on her 16th birthday. Her parents, both university lecturers, didn’t approve, but she was determined to try to make a difference — all the more challenging in China, where people trying to make a difference often evoke suspicion. Or worse. [Source: Steven Lee Myer, New York Times, December 4, 2020]

“In the two years since, she has waged a lonely, often frustrating campaign to raise awareness of the perils of a warming planet. She has joined international “climate strikes,” planted trees in her hometown in southern China, Guilin, and mounted a flurry of one-woman protests. She has been called the Greta Thunberg of China, a nod to the Swedish activist who is only a few weeks younger. Ms. Thunberg, though, has been feted for her activism. She speaks at Davos and the United Nations. Time magazine named her its person of the year in 2019.

“In China, where any kind of activism amounts to a challenge to the ruling Communist Party, Ms. Ou has been ignored, ridiculed and ostracized, as well as harassed by school officials and the police. When she joined the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 25 in Shanghai, an international event that attracted thousands of protesters at more than 3,500 locations, she was detained and questioned for several hours by the police. The officers scolded her. “They thought what we were doing was meaningless,” she said.

“Ms. Ou was born in Guilin in 2002 and grew up on a college campus in a city renowned for its natural beauty. In one of several interviews, she described hikes in the parks and mountains that surround the city. Nature was, she felt, “injected into my blood and bone.” She liked school. She played soccer, though few other girls did. As a hobby, she drew and painted watercolors and later comics. Now, she feels hobbies are indulgences. “In the face of such a big problem, at this moment, at every moment, when life is being maimed and tortured, what excuses do we have to entertain for our own desires?” she said.

“Her ecological awakening, she said, began with a dream she had in January 2018. In it, she went to a restaurant where customers were presented with a bucket of fish and a knife. Each patron had to catch and kill a fish, or not eat. When she was about to kill hers, “the fish turned to look at me,” she said. “I still remember the extremely fearful look in its eyes,” she said. “I haven’t eaten any meat since then. Soon after, she read an article in a National Geographic magazine borrowed from the library. It detailed the devastating effects that the excessive use of plastics was having on marine life. Her first direct action was a failed effort to persuade her school cafeteria’s director to stop using plastic utensils. “He thought that plastic disposable tableware was very hygienic,” she said, adding, “I think his reason was that the cost would increase.”

“When she heard of Ms. Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement in 2019, she was chagrined to learn there were none of the same sort of protests in China to draw attention to the issue of climate change. In May of that year, she held China’s first, standing alone with a picket in front of the Guilin municipal government building for six days. On the sixth, the police took her in for questioning, calling in her parents and asking them to make her stop. “Not everyone’s feedback is positive,” she said.

“Ms. Ou’s latest protest happened spontaneously, during a trip with her parents to Guangzhou, a booming southern city near Hong Kong. Her parents had booked her a hotel room, which she felt was wasteful. Angry with her parents, she decided to hold an overnight vigil outside the hotel. “All of us know that in the hotel industry, the bedding for guests and other disposable items the hotel provides waste a lot of water resources and emit a lot of carbon dioxide,” she said. She huddled inside her hooded sweatshirt through the cold night, surrounded by hastily made fliers with messages like “Vigil for Climate.”

Brother Nut Gets Results

Brother Nut is a Chinese activist-artist known only by his pseudonym who has drawn considerable attention for his environmentally-themed art. According to the New York Times: The 9,000 bottles of water on display at an art gallery in Beijing in June 2018 appeared identical to those of Nongfu Spring, one of China’s most popular spring water brands, with one jarring difference. Inside each bottle was brown, murky groundwater collected from a Chinese village. The water from the village, Xiaohaotu, in the central province of Shaanxi, is polluted with heavy metals, the likely result of nearby coal mining and gas exploration operations, residents and officials say.The things I’m concerned about are all related to people’s survival experience,” said Brother Nut,. “For example, do people have fresh air, clean water to drink? These are basic human rights.” [Source: Olivia Mitchell Ryan and Zoe Mou[Source: New York Times, July 13, 2018]

This is not Brother Nut’s first attempt at turning pollution into art with a message — in 2015, he used an industrial vacuum to suck up particulate matter in Beijing’s air and formed it into a brick — but the “Nongfu Spring Market” exhibit stands out for prompting officials to take action. Almost immediately after Brother Nut opened the “market” on June 20 in Beijing’s popular 798 Art District, images of muck-filled water bottles began to circulate on Chinese social media. The authorities in the capital ordered the show closed, which only served to generate more attention.

“The authorities in Shaanxi also responded to the stir the show had caused. Rather than censure Brother Nut, the authorities there opened an investigation into the water quality in Xiaohaotu, a village on the outskirts of the city of Yulin.“Brother Nut, 37, said he was moved to create the performance piece after traveling in Xiaohaotu, where he met residents who, he said, were suffering from high rates of cancer and skin diseases. The villagers had complained for years to the provincial authorities, but the government did little to mitigate the problem, he said. Within two weeks of the show’s opening, however, officials in Yulin held a news conference in response to the “online reaction to ‘the drinking water safety problem in Xiaohaotu,’” according to the state-run Shaanxi News Agency.

“The authorities in Yulin said they tested 11 drinking water sources in and around Xiaohaotu and found that 10 were contaminated with high levels of iron and manganese. The Yulin Environmental Protection Bureau announced that it would further inspect wastewater at three nearby coal mines and a gas field operated by Sinopec, a state-owned enterprise. The bureau also ordered the companies to temporarily halt their operations. The Yulin officials further announced that a new water supply network, including water purification equipment for some villages, would be fully implemented by the end of July.

Chinese Whistleblower Sentenced to Prison

In 2018, whistleblower Zhang Wenqi was sentenced to 17 months in prison for “disturbing market order” after reporting industrial pollution in central China’s Henan province — even though provincial environmental protection authorities have confirmed that his accusations were true. Fan Liya wrote in Sixth Tone: Zhang was sentenced by in a court in Wuzhi County on on charges of fabricating facts and causing financial losses to three companies in the province, The Beijing News reported Tuesday. The public prosecutor brought forward the criminal case after the two paper companies and a technology company complained that Zhang’s allegations had damaged their business reputations and caused substantial losses. Zhang’s defense lawyer, Wang Zhenyu, told Sixth Tone that he believes Zhang has been wrongly convicted given that his claims were verified in investigations by environmental authorities. [Source: Fan Liya, Sixth Tone, July 12, 2018]

Zhang was a salesman at a Shanghai-based biochemical technology company that was a major supplier of crystal violet lactone (CVL), a dye used in carbonless copying paper. In July 2014, Zhang found that Guangyuan Paper Co. Ltd. and Zhihui Science and Technology Co. Ltd. — two companies connected to Jianghe — were producing CVL without permission from the local industry and commerce authority. The exhaust fumes and solid waste from CVL production contain pollutants like ammonia and heavy metals that require treatment, but Zhang tipped off environmental authorities that he witnessed the companies simply burying the waste near the industrial park where all three companies are located.

“In August 2014, the environmental protection bureau of Wuzhi County ordered the two companies to suspend production and apply for a chemical manufacturing permit. It also confirmed that the factory did not have facilities equipped to treat waste and prevent pollution. In May 2015, a national-level inspection team from the then-Ministry of Environmental Protection confirmed that the companies had dumped industrial waste, but refuted Zhang’s allegations that they had manufactured CVL.

“Unconvinced by the results of the investigation, Zhang continued to report the issue to environmental authorities from the county to national level as an anonymous private citizen. In June 2016, the Henan provincial environmental monitoring authority confirmed that the companies were manufacturing CVL and ordered that the production line be disassembled. The management of the three companies — Jianghe, Guangyuan, and Zhihui — and the county’s environmental officials were held accountable for pollution and negligence.

“In March 2017, county police detained Zhang after Jianghe reported that his accusation had led to financial losses for the company. They also accused him of using a false identity for profit. “He didn’t use his real identity because he wanted to protect himself,” Zhang’s elder brother, Zhang Xu, told Sixth Tone. “There was no evidence showing that he filed the reports for personal gain.”

Environmental Law Suits in China

Lawyers have filed suits and sometimes won on behalf of people that have become sick or had their farms fouled by pollution. Wang Canfa, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, runs the leading environmental law practice in China, the Center for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims. He has helped hundreds of ordinary citizens fight polluting factories and unresponsive local officials. He has won a third of his cases, an extraordinarily record in China. The cases he wins often set a precedent for other cases.

National pollution laws are rarely enforced and when they are polluters find it is often more cost effective for to pay fines than make improvements. Things are improving. A number of victims of pollution are taking advantage of new laws and suing polluters. Offering assistance is the Beijing-based legal aid office, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims.

In May, 1995 a Jiangsu provincial court ordered a brewery to pay local peasant $85,000 for producing pollution that killed peasant's fish and ducks. In a similar case a duck farmer, whose ducks entered the Huai River and emerged with singed feathers and burned feet and then died, sued a nearby pig farm upstream for dumping toxic chemicals upstream.

In July 2009 — in what was described as the first ever green lawsuit against government in China — a member of the All-China Environmental Federation — which is backed by the central government — said a judge in Guizhou province had accepted its claim on behalf of residents who complain they have suffered from pollution. Residents allege that the Qingzhen land resources bureau leased land to a drinks factory in 1994, but construction of the factory has not been completed and they believe the site is damaging two adjacent lakes from which they draw drinking water. They want the government to take back the land and remove construction materials.[Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, July 31, 2009]

Ma Yong, director of the legal service center at the federation, told the Associated Press. “The case will serve as a warning for government departments and companies that damage the environment, as we're stepping up efforts to play a supervisory role.” He added that he hoped it would pave the way for other organizations to file public-interest lawsuits.

Environmental activists complain that courts usually turn away such cases. “If this leads to more non-governmental organizations bringing public interest litigation I think this is a very important breakthrough. It means China is going to open the door to more public involvement in environmental enforcement,” said Alex Wang, a senior lawyer with the Natural R`esources Defense Council, a US environmental group.

Apple Criticized for China Supply Chain Pollution

In August 2011, Reuters reported: “Chinese environmental groups accused Apple Inc of turning a blind eye as its suppliers pollute the country, the latest criticism of the technology company's environmental record. Toxic discharges from "suspected Apple suppliers" have been encroaching on local communities and environments, a coalition of environmental organizations said on Wednesday in a 46-page report alleging efforts to conceal pollution. [Source: Reuters, Michael Martina, August 31, 2011]

"The large volume of discharge in Apple's supply chain greatly endangers the public's health and safety," said the report, issued on the website of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. The report alleges that 27 suspected Apple suppliers had severe pollution problems, from toxic gases to heavy metal sludge. In one case, the report said, a nearby village experienced a "phenomenal rise in cases of cancer."

Apple has decided to "take advantage of loopholes" in developing countries' environmental management systems to "grab super profits," it said. Apple does not disclose who its suppliers are. The environmental groups said public documents and five months of research and field investigation led to the findings in the report. "A large number of IT supplier violation records have already been publicized; however, Apple chooses not to face such information and continues to use these companies as suppliers. This can only be seen as a deliberate refusal of responsibility," the report said.

This is not the first time Apple has been targeted for environmental infractions and its secretive supply chain management in Chinese factories, where it assembles most of its products.In January, several of the same non-governmental organizations issued a report alleging woeful environmental records for the iPad and iPhone maker's China-based contract manufacturers.In February, workers at a Taiwanese-owned factory in eastern China making touch screens on contract for Apple aired their grievances over a chemical poisoning after using N-Hexane, a toxic solvent.

Apple says it maintains a rigorous auditing regime and all its suppliers are monitored and investigated regularly. "Apple is committed to driving the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply base," Apple spokeswoman Carolyn Wu told Reuters."We require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made," she said.

Apple is not alone in drawing criticism from environmental groups. Some of the world's leading brands rely on Chinese suppliers that pollute the country's environment with chemicals banned in Europe and elsewhere. Many Western multinationals — including toymaker Mattel Inc, which suffered a toxic lead paint scandal in 2007 — have struggled to regulate product quality across scores of suppliers in knotted Chinese supply chains.

Image Sources: Greenepeace, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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