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China's Pollution Revolution

Contaminated rivers and farms are triggering peasant protests. Will it be enough to force real change?
 
 
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In 2005, China was shaken by 51,000 pollution-triggered "public disturbances" -- demonstrations or riots of a hundred or more people protesting the contamination of rivers and farms -- according to the government's own statistics. (The real figures are almost certainly higher.) The Ministry of Public Security has ranked pollution among the top five threats to China's peace and stability.

One hotbed of such environmental unrest is Hunan Province, a former stronghold of Sun Yat-Sen's anti-imperial forces and the birthplace of Mao Zedong. This southern province has twice nurtured agitated peasant movements that have risen against the central government.

In October, I met the unlikely instigator of a pollution riot: an unassuming forty-seven-year-old farmer named Chen Li Fang. With her husband, Chen grows rice and raises pigs, chickens, and ducks in the village of Shutangshan, in northeastern Hunan. In 2001, a chemical processing plant opened less than a mile from their farm. The owner of the factory had first considered setting up shop in a neighboring town, but the local government badly wanted to attract both the jobs and tax revenue. According to China Economic Times, it offered the owner of the Hunan Jingtian Science and Technology Company generous financial incentives to open its plant there.

By 2003, Chen and other villagers had compiled a troubling list of problems that had materialized since the factory opened. Dozens of people reported stomach pains, migraine headaches, and vomiting. Local media reported ten new cases of cancer among people who lived within a mile and a half of the factory -- an alarming number for a village of only a few hundred people.

Farmers watched their cattle die and rice yields decline. Chen and other villagers believed that wastewater discharged from the factory had poisoned the Xiang River, a source for drinking water and irrigation, and that the dark smoke rising from the plant's chimney had fouled the air. (The factory owner insisted to the local press that while his plant had pollution problems, the villagers' ailments could not be traced conclusively to its emissions.)

Groups of villagers visited the factory repeatedly to talk to the management, requesting that the emissions-control equipment be upgraded or the most polluting production lines be discontinued. The owner offered small payments to those who complained loudest -- enough to temporarily placate poor farmers, if not enough to cover their losses. Gradually, even those who were initially satisfied with their compensation demanded that the factory close. They also petitioned the environmental protection bureaus of Wangcheng County, where the factory is located, and nearby Changsha City, but officials approved the factory to continue operations.

Having exhausted peaceful channels, the villagers turned to force. Twice in the summer of 2004, more than a hundred residents marched onto factory grounds to disconnect its electricity. Chen Li Fang organized the second effort. She split the villagers into two groups, with the first storming the front gates, the second approaching from behind. The manager cowered in his office and called the police. Someone ripped the power-supply unit off the wall. The factory was shut down for three days before the equipment could be replaced. Chen served a short jail term.

But Chen was undeterred, feeling that she had less and less to lose. In January 2006, she traveled to Beijing for the first time. She camped for two weeks in a train station's waiting room as she struggled to get an audience with the national environmental ministry. Finally, she met with an official from the State Environmental Protection Administration, China's understaffed and overstretched version of the EPA, and was sent home with a letter directing the provincial government to examine her case. Nothing much changed.

In November she returned to Beijing, but this time she met with an organization of public-interest lawyers, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims. Founded in 1998, the center is staffed by volunteers -- mostly law professors and young law students -- and operates a free legal advice hotline. Since it launched, it has fielded about 10,000 calls. Lawyers from the center have personally taken up more than eighty callers' cases; they've won a third of those cases, lost a third, and a third are still pending.

China has had environmental laws on the books for thirty years, but teaching citizens to use them is a relatively new enterprise. So, too, is the expectation that laws should be enforced. Local environmental officials have surprisingly limited authority to implement Beijing's green regulations, as these cadres receive both their orders and their salaries from local government, which has an economic interest in shielding local industry.

In recent years, growing pollution concerns have prompted Beijing to pass stricter environmental legislation, including a 2003 law that requires factories gain approval for onetime "environmental impact assessment" reports from local authorities. At the moment, China's officials face what may appear to them to be an uneasy choice: allow citizens to use these laws to their fullest extent, or risk a precipitous rise in protests. The environmental minister said in 2005 that pollution-related protests had increased in recent years by an annual rate of 29 percent.

In 2003, the factory in Chen's village submitted the requisite report detailing its projected environmental impact and plans for pollution control, which the local environmental protection bureau then approved. But according to Zhou Guangming, an environmental lawyer who has examined the document, the report was flawed and misleading. Most obviously, the report claimed that no wastewater would be dis-charged directly into the Xiang River, although a walk around the factory grounds reveals a pipe that does exactly that.

Rather than planning another raid, Chen and other villagers -- aided by their new allies in Beijing -- are preparing a lawsuit that would force local officials to shut down the factory. In 2007, Xu Kezhu, an attorney from the legal aid center, visited the village. She collected evidence of factory conditions and interviewed residents, environmental officials, and plant workers. When the factory owner bragged that some of his technology had been imported from the United States, she retorted, "If you learned about commercial processes from America, why did you not also learn about environmental protection processes from America?"

Inspired by the U.S. system, in which Sierra Club lawyers routinely sue the EPA for administrative breaches, Xu plans to sue the local environmental protection bureau for rubber-stamping what she deems a faulty environmental-impact report. As she told me, it is easier to definitively prove administrative failure than to establish a direct link between the factory's emissions and the illnesses suffered by the villagers. The lawsuit is shaping up to be a test of China's tentative collection of environmental laws and accompanying oversight mechanisms.

I visited the factory one Sunday afternoon in late October, when the plant was closed for the weekend. But the metal gate wasn't locked, and Chen's husband, who has visited dozens of times, led me onto the premises for a tour. (He told me that when he last spoke to the factory owner, he was told, "It [would be] a good thing for you to be dead." That hasn't cowed him.) The walls inside the factory were black with soot; the equipment was rusty and looked poorly maintained. Sacks of chemical additives, ready to be shipped to customers, sat beside rusted barrels that oozed dark liquid onto the floor.

We were accompanied that afternoon by several villagers, all shouting. Each had a complaint to air. "We cannot endure anymore," yelled Li Qiu Liang, whose father-in-law has spent the last five years unable to work; she claims pollution has made him sick. A sixty-six-year-old farmer, Wen Yun Kai, showed me a series of wrinkled letters he'd sent to local environmental officials after his cattle became sick and died; a local veterinarian had "verified" his claims and written at the bottom, "It is truth." A sixty-year-old fisherman, Xiao Xiang Lin, said his nets were empty because the Xiang River had "no more fish."

Chen's husband and I also followed the pipeline that led from the wastewater holding basin into the river, a few hundred meters away. This is the pipeline the environmental impact report claims doesn't exist. Then he showed me a hole in the pipe where the villagers had smashed it open in order to confirm the presence of wastewater inside.

For the moment, the villagers are placing their faith in the lawyers. "I want them to make the law work," Chen told me, sitting at a table in her modest home. "If there is no government action to solve the problem, I will go to Beijing, again and again." Chen isn't going away -- and nor are millions like her -- until the problem does.

Christina Larson is an editor of the Washington Monthly. She traveled to China in the spring and fall of 2007, visiting Beijing, Shenyang, Lanzhou, Chengdu, Kunming, Changsha City, and villages in Gansu, Sichuan, and Hunan provinces.

 
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