A New Role for Reporters in China

My first trip to the United States took me to Portland, which I found to be a beautiful city. In the United States, the western part is scenic and peaceful, but in China, things are different. The west of China is poor, and the environment is deteriorating.

Last summer, I went to the western China to the ancient and mysterious area of Loulan, which was a very important empire on the Silk Road, an ancient trading route from China to Europe. There used to be large patches of forests and lakes in Loulan. But last year when I went, there was nothing left but a few hillocks. The area has nearly become a desert after long periods of drought, water shortage, and damage caused by humans.

The Loulan region is near the Gansu, a western Chinese province. In 1993, in LanZhou, the capital of Gansu, some farmers established a factory. The factory caused a lot of air pollution, and local residents took to the streets to protest; some people died in the violence. When interviewed by reporters, residents said, "We can't survive in that polluted air." But workers said they needed the jobs the factory provided.

China is a developing country. Economic growth is a priority. In the 1990s farmers set up many factories, including some notorious for polluting -- such as paper mills and cement plants. The economy improved but at the same time the environment deteriorated. An official from the environmental protection bureau of Chongqing told visiting journalists one day about a visit from the chief of state of a certain county. From far away, the state official saw the white foam of pollution on the Yangtze River and asked, "What's that?" Embarrassed, the environmental protection official answered sheepishly, "Ducks."

Today, the Yangtze River is severely polluted by waste from the cities, from the factories on both sides, as well as by the ships sailing the river. "You will not sink even if you stand on the water because there is three-meter thick rubbish on the surface near Gezhou Dam," a senior official once said.

Around China's capital, sand storms have grown more common as urban sprawl and deforestation fuel the disappearance of trees and grassland. In April, 2000, a sand storm hit Beijing and killed five people working on the top of a building. I was forced to stay home, and spent the day looking at the yellow sky with worry. 'Will Beijing become another Loulan, the disappeared great city?' I wondered.

Environmental journalists can play a critical role in making sure this does not happen. In 1998, the Environment and Resources Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), which is a part of the Chinese central command, organized dozens of reporters from several media institutions to go to ZheJiang Province to do some interviews. Tin factories dating back 600 years had dangerously polluted the environment. Residents and workers were constantly fighting. After reports by environmental journalists, several tin mines were closed. In 1999, after another series of reports exposing the situation, the government of Zhejiang Province was forced to close all the mines. It took only two years for the environmental reporters to help solve a problem that had existed for 600 years.

In China, there are environmental protection laws, and there are environmental protection bureaus. So why are things still dissatisfactory, and why are environmental reporters still badly needed?

The problem is that while the factories in China pollute the environment they are central to the nation's economical development.

In addition, Chinese officials are not elected, but are nominated by senior officials. The nominating officials judge whether candidates are likely to stimulate economic developments. Potential candidates focus on how much tax they can collect, not on environmental concerns.

In my hometown, a paper mill polluted the groundwater of the whole city but the head of the guilty factory was still considered a hero by the government because the mill pays tens of millions of dollars in taxes each year.

Now you may understand why the government might ignore a factory's pollution unless that factory cannot afford to pay taxes. The municipal revenue, and city officials, would be badly affected by a factory closing.

There is an environmental protection bureau in every municipality, but the director is appointed by the mayor. The local newspapers and television stations are well aware of the environmental problems, but guess who nominates their chief editors? Again, the mayor. Of course, the chief editors dare not do anything to upset their superiors. In the meantime, China's environmental problems grow more and more severe.

The Chinese central government has called on local governments to protect the environment, and not to pursue economic development at the cost of environment. But local officials say, "You ask me to achieve such a high economical index, and at the same time ask me to close factories, that's simply impossible!" Instead, local officials simply keep the truth from the central government.

In 1993, the NPC offered financial backing to journalists from dozens of national media to conduct collective interviews in various badly polluted regions. The interviews were to be conducted annually for a period of several months.

Chinese national media is different from American national media. The Chinese national media is supervised by the central government or by the departments of the central government. These media such as the People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and China Central TV, hold a privileged position and avoid local government restrictions. All of them are based in Beijing.

Chinese officials do not need to fear criticism from their direct superiors, who in fact are invested in protecting them. Instead, the officials and the superiors, conceal the truth from high-level superiors. They fear exposure by the media, especially newspapers and television stations in Beijing. Therefore, the local officials usually extend an exceptionally warm welcome to journalists visiting their city.

First, the officials want to be portrayed as environmental conservationists and do not want to be criticized in the media. Secondly, they want to convey the impression that they have no knowledge of pollution problems, or that their subordinates have concealed such problems. Subsequently, senior local officials offer extremely courteous receptions to journalists. When journalists travel to interviews, their cars are usually accompanied by a grand motorcade, guided by a police car screaming in front. Under these circumstances, the journalists look like senior governmental officials.

Annual reports from the NPC-sponsored media group are very effective. They have helped solve some 4000 environmental pollution problems in the past nine years. The reports have also alerted the Chinese government to serious pollution, which led to the creation or modification of certain environment-related laws. For example, previously the owner of a factory could be held liable for environmental damage. But under a new law, the mayor is also responsible. This may force local officials to take environmental protection more seriously.

Chinese journalists are playing an increasingly important role regarding environmental concerns. In July, 2001, a tin mine in northern China collapsed and more than 70 people were buried alive. At first, local officials tried to suppress news of the accident and the central government was kept in the dark. But Chinese journalists investigated and reported on the accident. Remarkably, the journalists who investigated the story were from the People's Daily on-line, a medium run directly by the Chinese Communist Party.

To date, environmental journalism successes in China have always been conducted by the central and national media, under the direction of the local governments. Unfortunately, we haven't yet seen local media in the provinces and the municipalities take on the role of environmental protection watchdogs or exposing actions by local officials that harm the environment. Will journalists play the role of analyzing and exposing environment-related actions by the Chinese central government? My answer is "not yet." But we have taken the first step.

Liu Jianqiang writes for Gold Sword, a news magazine based in Beijing, and is a graduate student at Tsinghua University. He recently traveled to Portland, Oregon to attend the conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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