In November, much of China watched in horror as work crews struggled to contain a benzene spill that polluted the northeastern Songhua River and disrupted drinking water supplies to about 12 million people in the region for more than a week.
But even those watching the event unfold on TV from the comfort of their homes in Beijing weren’t entirely safe from the effects of China’s increasing environmental decay. China’s capital is one of the most polluted in the world and lung cancer is now the number one cause of death here, according to China’s own State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). A thick cloud of sulfur envelops the city most evenings and a recent picture taken from NASA’s Terra satellite showed the entire city covered by a nearly opaque band of gray smog.
With more and more people suddenly finding themselves directly affected by endemic pollution, public awareness of and anger over China’s deteriorating environment is growing. And so is their willingness to take risks and do something about it, despite the strictures on organized political activity in this authoritarian state.
“People are taking a stand,” says Dai Qing, a political and environmental activist who was jailed during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Dai emerged from prison to champion opposition to the giant Three Gorges Dam, which she calls “the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world.”
In the decade since China’s first environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, was allowed to be registered in 1994, more than 2,000 environmental NGOs have risen all over the country, according to government reports. Once disparate, under-funded, untrained and badly equipped, many of these NGOs are now learning how to organize and empower themselves. Over the last two months, Dai has been running a communications workshop for local NGO workers from a small office within the bowels of a humble-looking residential neighborhood in Beijing.
Zheng Jun Feng, 43, a scientist with Green Remote, a local NGO that studies satellite imaging and remote sensing data, says he attended the sessions because he needs to find better ways to get around the controls and constraints the Chinese government places on his work.
“I want to learn how to take my thoughts and ideas to foreign friends,” Zheng says, echoing the view of many activists here who say foreign money and expertise is critical for China’s budding NGOs to grow.
A widening impact
This call is being increasingly heeded abroad. Dai says her sessions are being co-sponsored by Probe International, a Canadian environmental watchdog group, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute. One reason international aid is flowing to China’s environmental NGOs is that while China’s booming economy is buoying global markets, the environmental fallout of this production is spreading.
“A lot of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants from China are reaching Japan with the western wind and even the west coast of the United States,” says Dr. Tsutomu Toichi, managing director and chief executive economist of the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo.
Yet China, along with other developing nations such as India, is free of any obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to reduce the emission of various ozone-depleting gases. (The United States and Australia, who together account for about 27 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, have also not agreed to sign the protocol.)
A concerned Japan has tried to encourage China, which emits about 25 million tons of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide each year, to install de-sulfurization units in its coal-fired power plants by providing it with technical know-how and more than $40 million in “green aid.” Yet Toichi says that “most Chinese power companies prefer to pay the financial penalties” of not installing the equipment because it’s cheaper to do.
Justin Fong, the founder of Moving Mountains, a San Francisco-based NGO helping Dai organize the training sessions, says the activists in his class “may seem ordinary, but they’re all doing ground-breaking work, and taking real chances” by trying to change such mentalities.
Initially, Chinese NGOs and journalists had focused on more politically “acceptable” issues, such as tree planting campaigns. But now many are engaged in fierce battles with authorities over the construction of dams and other public works mega-projects, as well as filing lawsuits against polluting factories.
“If we don’t speak up, don’t take responsibility, our country will be poisoned,” says Wu Gang, a journalist with Shanxi Youth Daily who has been fighting China’s coal mafia in the mineral-rich central province of Shanxi.
So far, Wu and others like him have had some success, and a growing section of the Chinese leadership has been vocal in calling for China’s economic policies to be more environmentally sensitive.
End of the miracle?
China’s economic “miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace,” Pan Yue, China’s deputy minister for the environment, said in a recent interview with Der Spiegel magazine. “Acid rain is falling on one third of China’s territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless. … One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air … [and] because the air and water are polluted we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product.”
Statements like this from senior leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, have also encouraged environmentalists, particularly as SEPA has followed them with some action. Earlier this year, the agency suspended work on 30 large projects worth more than $10 billion after they failed to meet environmental standards. And in December, China’s chief environmental regulator, Xie Zhenhua, resigned shortly after the benzene spill in Harbin.
Yet Dai says there has been little change in Beijing’s overall economic and environmental policies, which continue to focus on creating the 7 percent annual growth analysts say the country needs to avert domestic political turmoil.
“Real disasters force the government to respond and so they have to say all the right things,” Dai says. But “a lot of the words from Hu and [Chinese Premier] Wen Jiabao are just to meet the overlap with the global mood.”
What also angers people is that the Chinese government, despite its rhetoric, continues to hide critical information from the public. Just about two months before the accident in Harbin, the Chinese central government had announced that it would stop treating the death toll from natural disasters as a state secret. But any hope that Beijing was moving toward a new transparency was quickly crushed after it became known that the government withheld news of the benzene spill for 10 days because a powerful state-owned company, the China National Petroleum Corporation, had caused the accident.
“There is also little honesty from the government on environmental issues because they fear the truth might cause turmoil in society,” says Kongjian Yu, dean of the graduate school of landscape architecture at Peking University and an environmental campaigner. “This is still a society in transition and China’s top priority is stability and growth.”
Indeed, the Chinese government’s development plans and economic policy remain dedicated to cars instead of public transportation, fossil fuels instead of alternative energies and pampering manufacturers with cheap resources instead of pushing them towards greater efficiencies. That’s made China the world’s largest consumer of coal, grain, steel and meat, and the world’s second-largest consumer of gas. As a result, SEPA estimates that, in Beijing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment.
“All this is waking Chinese people to environmental issues just as the extinction of the bald eagle awakened Americans to preservation in the 1960s,” Yu says.
Fong says the 20-odd public interest lawyers, journalists and nongovernmental organization managers who attend his three-hour sessions after putting in a full day’s work are a determined bunch.
“There’s this new sense of ‘I can,’ ” Fong says. “And it’s not just with the younger generation. Even older people here have a feeling, a passion to change things. This country’s future is at stake.”