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Story Publication logo November 16, 2015

China: A Vision of Green Democracy


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In Beijing a tiny NGO is taking on global corporations and harnessing people power in a campaign to...

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In 2010, while I was filming Waking the Green Tiger, a documentary about the emergence of a green movement in China, I recorded a key interview with Qu Geping, a senior government official who was the founder and former director of China's Environmental Protection Agency. Qu provided me with a surprising, critical and unvarnished description of China's many environmental crises from the 1950s to the present and his efforts to introduce laws that would bring rampant pollution and environmental destruction under control. I was struck by his calm storytelling and his sense of humor and by his disinclination to trust governments to take care of environmental problems. Several times during a two hour interview he returned to the idea that the solution to environmental problems could only be achieved if the public and the media were empowered to supervise the environment, "from the bottom up." In a country that is best known for its relentless industrial development with little concern for the environment Qu's life's work appeared to be aimed at moderating development and providing a legal foundation for a green movement. How he managed this, within a government that appeared to have a laser-sharp focus on maintaining a double digit GDP, was intriguing.

I also met Ma Jun, an investigative reporter and environmental activist who founded the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) which is featured in the accompanying report China's Environmental Ethics. By the time I met Ma in 2010 the IPE was already publishing information about polluting factories online and they were in the midst of a campaign to clean up factories that were supplying parts and materials for international corporations like WalMart and Apple. The list of the worst polluters included 1,500 factories. Publishing such a list, I would have thought, might invite push back from local officials who are rewarded for growing the GDP, not for releasing clean water. If the campaign forced factories to close local employment would fall, careers would suffer and someone, presumably, would be to blame.

But Ma apparently had the support of the Ministry of the Environment and by extension, the central government. Rather than stifle the IPE's website the Ministry repeatedly ramped up the release of pollution data, eventually providing the IPE with 200,000 reports along with a growing stream of live data from pollution monitors. As shown in the video report, the IPE not only absorbed this new data, they expanded their interactive website and offered live feeds of pollution data to anyone with an iPhone app that now has 50,000 users.

Qu Geping likely didn't anticipate the use of iPhone apps, Google earth data mapping, and real time broadcasting of factory pollution data when he was first laying the groundwork for an environmental agency, but it struck me that the work of the IPE exactly fits Qu's philosophy of ensuring environmental protection by enabling grass roots activism. In the following essay for the Pulitzer Center, I set out to retrace Qu's progress in developing a legal foundation for environmental activism suggest that the environmental movement generally and Ma Jun's IPE website in particular were built on that foundation.

Qu Geping: Paving the Way for the Rise of a Green Movement

"If we rely only on the government alone it will be like a person working with only one arm. From now on, as we develop a system of laws, the objective will be to increase public participation instead of depending on the government alone." – Qu Geping

While North Americans were celebrating the first Earth Day in 1970, China was just entering into the kind of unbridled industrial expansion that the United States had seen in the late 19th and early 20th century when American cities in the industrial heartland were blanketed in smog. In Pittsburgh, the smoke from the steel mills was so dense even in the 1940s that street lamps were lit in mid-morning. China followed a similar path in a shorter time. By1970 China had already spent 15 years, from the time of the Great Leap Forward, ramping up its own steel production to catch up with the West. The new state owned factories were belching smoke and dumping untreated waste, but the country was in the midst of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and there was little attention paid to pollution. The consequences, however, were accumulating.

In 1972, during the height of Cultural Revolution, Premier Zhou Enlai received an alarming report from the port city of Dalian, east of Beijing. Hundreds of hectares of shellfish were dying, reportedly poisoned by mercury pollution from nearby factories. The mudflats were turning black. Zhou called in a chemist and former manager of a state film factory, Qu Geping, to investigate.

At that time, even suggesting that pollution was a problem was controversial, Qu recalled, "because according to the extreme minds of the political left, the environmental issue is one of the features of capitalism and China is a socialist country; therefore we don't have pollution." Once this was declared, Qu said, "nobody dared to oppose it." To say otherwise was to risk being branded anti-Socialist. But Zhou suspected that the problem might be larger than anyone was admitting. He sent Qu to Dalian to investigate.

We have a problem

What Qu found in Dalian and then in every major city on the east coast from Shanghai to Guangzhou was an alarming pattern of industrial waste. Even a mile out to sea near Shanghai, he found, there was clear evidence of pollution. After he made his report to the premier, Qu recalled, Zhou was very quiet for a long time and then said it confirmed his suspicion. There was a serious problem.

The Premier was one of the few officials with the standing to launch an investigation. In 1972 Zhou was in the midst of negotiations that brought President Richard Nixon to China and gave China a seat at the United Nations. His seniority and stature within the Party shielded him from criticism and his 'umbrella' protected Qu as well. So rather than ignoring the thorny question of pollution Zhou took a series of steps that ultimately propelled Qu Geping into a leading role as an advocate for environmental protection.

After hearing Qu's report Zhou instructed him convene a "ten thousand person" convention at the Great Hall at Tiananmen Square, immediately. The meeting brought together representatives from every region who were told to document their environmental problems for discussion by the assembly. The list of problems was long. Soon after, Zhou sent a 40-person delegation including Qu to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. This was the first international conference that the Peoples' Republic of China attended.

When Qu arrived in Sweden in the summer of 1972, it was already two years after the first Earth Day and the streets of Stockholm were filled with demonstrators carrying banners calling for sustainable development. Inside the conference the Chinese delegation gave prepared speeches blaming the superpowers for exploiting developing countries and polluting the environment. But privately they were unsure about how to proceed.

"My knowledge of environmental protection at that time was very shallow," Qu recalled, "I was full of confusion on the issue." Conference Chair Maurice Strong took a keen interest in Qu and the Chinese delegation and made a point of meeting with them every morning before the general session. It was the beginning of a friendship between Qu and Strong that continued until Strong's death in 2015.

Qu's report back to the premier after the conference was very long. "We realized we had a problem," Qu said, "but we were totally in the dark" about how to proceed. Zhou followed up by sending Qu to New York in 1974 as China's environmental ambassador to the United Nations Environment Program. Over the next two years, Qu made a point of meeting with each of the scientists who were representing other countries. The clear message he received from them, he says, was simple: "Don't follow our path." To pollute first and clean up later, they said, is not the way to go. Controlling pollution while developing was the better alternative. This could only be achieved, Qu concluded, if China developed strong legislation and a separate government department empowered to enforce it.

致富光荣 To get rich is glorious!

In 1976, while Qu was still in New York, Mao Zedong died, bringing the Cultural Revolution to a close. Zhou Enlai also died the same year. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping emerged as the new chairman and the head of a new reform movement. "To get rich is glorious," Deng declared. The new engine of China's economy would be private enterprise. GDP surged as China's "economic miracle" began to unfold. Environmental protection was not part of the plan.

For a time, at least, Qu found, there was still some support for the argument that industry should be reined in and the flood of industrial waste should be controlled. From 1981 to 1983, he recalled, the debate at the State Council centered on the theoretical question of whether "to get rich first and clean up the pollution later" was a general rule, a kind of 'law of nature', or not. When it came down to a vote, Qu recalled, all of the theorists in the room agreed: it's not a law of nature. The heads of industrial departments disagreed. "If it isn't," they said, "why did all the Western countries and the developing countries follow this path? Name a country that didn't!" No one could think of an example.

Following the debate, over the objections of the pro-development departments, the State Council reached the conclusion that polluting first and cleaning up later was not the right policy. China should follow a different path. "But if we look back over the past 30 years," Qu said in 2010, policy and practice diverged. "We said we shouldn't follow the same path, but we did. It's hard not to repeat history."

A Green Hurricane

China's first environmental laws were passed in 1979 on a trial basis, but enforcement was weak. For much of the 1980s Qu worked in a small department within the ministry of urban and rural construction developing a legal framework for environmental regulation. In 1988 the department emerged as a separate Environmental Protection Agency.

By the early 1990s, the extent of the toxic pollution of China's air and water from tens of thousands of poorly regulated factories was painfully evident, but there was little discussion of the problem. A few journalists, like China national radio reporter Wang Yongchen, took small steps toward opening a debate on the subject by writing about littering and discussing the need to live in harmony with nature. But otherwise the tightly controlled national media, Qu found, steered clear of any mention of pollution and the local media followed suit. Uncriticized and unobserved, it was easy for inspectors and local officials to turn a blind eye to the dumping of toxic waste, even though it violated the law.

By 1992, Qu was becoming impatient. "I realized that it would be a long time before China changed from a country governed by individuals to one that is governed by law," he recalled, "but I was also thinking we could increase publicity and give the laws and the inspectors a push."

Qu approached the People's Congress and won approval for a media campaign that would focus on environmental problems. He then challenged the media to seek out stories. There were plenty. Over the next 15 years, by Qu's count, there were 220,000 reports by 65,000 journalists in all forms of media, from national television to local papers. "It was a huge number, hardly imaginable," he said. "Some people said 'a green hurricane is sweeping China.'"

While legal enforcement of environmental laws remained weak, hampered by foot-dragging local officials and corruption, Qu found that the media exposure was very effective, especially at that time in China. "When officials are criticized by their superiors," Qu said," they really don't care." But when they were exposed by the media, he found, "they took action right away." For Qu this was further evidence that "society needs to be supervised from the bottom up because nobody knows when they'll be in the media spotlight."

Friends of Nature

In 1992, China attended the Earth Summit in Rio where the United Nations Environment Program gave Qu the Saskawa prize. But among all the delegations, Qu noted, China was the only one that did not include non-governmental groups. At the time, NGOs were still not allowed in China and opinion about whether they were trustworthy and should be encouraged was divided. Qu took the position that they were useful. They would be, he said "an important arm of the government in future efforts to uncover and regulate polluters." His view prevailed and in 1994 the Friends of Nature, China's first NGO, was formed, but the latitude allowed NGOs was restricted. They were required to register; they were not allowed to form national organizations and while donations could be accepted, fundraising was prohibited. Over time, thousands of new NGOs were formed, but most limited their work to innocuous activities like public education, nature walks and tree planting. When the Friends of Nature grew to 10,000 members, they voluntarily capped their membership in order to avoid being seen as a political movement.

At the same time, international NGOs including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, International Rivers, Conservation International and Greenpeace were allowed to open offices in Beijing and collaborated with Chinese NGOs. A number of Chinese activists, including journalist Shi Lihong, spent time working for the international groups before launching their own NGOs.

By the late 1990s, the first independent photographers and filmmakers began to foster discussion about more controversial environmental issues, like China's endangered wildlife. Shi Lihong and her husband Xi Zhinong became famous in China when they made a film about endangered golden monkeys whose habitat in the high mountains of Yunnan province was about to be logged by a private contractor. When story was picked up in the national media, officials intervened, the contractor was paid off and the logging was stopped. Public interest in conservation was increasing but overall the field of action open to green groups remained narrow.

By 1998, Qu Geping's agency was renamed the State Environmental Protection Agency. Qu, at the age of 68, was nearing retirement but he had one further ambition: to bring the era of "pollute first, clean up later" to an end. The only way to accomplish this, he believed was with an effective Environmental Impact Assessments Law (EIA). It was, he says, his life's work.

Environmental Assessment and the Right to Participate

The idea of an empowered environmental agency with the ability to veto or modify massive projects supported by powerhouse agencies like the National Reform and Development Committee was strongly opposed by powerful departments. "In the first five years when I was in the People's Congress I couldn't get it passed no matter what, " Qu recalled. "People treated it like a fairy tale, like a pipe dream." He managed to get the legislation drafted, but when it was submitted to the State Council it languished on the desks of the Councilors. According to law, any bill that fails to move forward after two years would automatically be dismissed and could not be resubmitted. As the deadline approached, with only a week remaining, Qu was quietly desperate. "You can imagine the resistance," Qu said."They were all opposed."

"I said that this is a fundamental law. The reason that other countries are succeeding is due to this kind of law. I said I can't close my eyes when I die if this law isn't passed. We talked to the State Council again and again to convince them this law was extremely important. Finally it got through."

The new EIA legislation was passed in 2003. At the age of 73, Qu Geping's leading role as the author and inspiration for China's environmental legislation was coming to a close, but the influence of that legislation on China's green movement, and potentially on the development of democracy in China, was just beginning.


Ma Jun: Supervising the Environment from the Bottom Up.

"We cannot fight with slogans or poems. We must fight with data." —Ma Jun

When investigative journalist Ma Jun founded the tiny Institute of Public and Environmental affairs in 2006 his goal was to take China's environmental movement in a new direction by publishing online maps and data that would identify private and state run factories that were dumping toxic waste into the air and water. Exactly how this exposure would be received by government was not certain, but Ma was willing to take a chance.

Earlier, from 1993 until 2000, Ma had been an investigative reporter and Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, a key publication widely read by the leadership. At the time many of his stories focused on the growing damage to China's water supplies from dams, deforestation and industrialization. He later recalled being shocked by the condition of the Yellow River one summer when it ran dry and failed to reach the sea. Instead of freshwater streams running into a flowing river he found green and yellow stinking ooze from local factories seeping down the banks into the dry riverbed. When he asked regional officials about the condition of the river, an engineer suggested that the situation was ideal because all the water was used and "not a drop was wasted."

Ma's investigations led to his publishing China's Water Crisis a caustic examination of China's failure to regulate and protect its water sources. The fact that it was not banned or criticized was an indication that within the government there was a growing recognition that the environmental crisis was expanding and action was needed.

A Storm of Environmental Assessment

The most outspoken critic of the government's failure to protect the environment was the deputy director of the EPA, Pan Yue. In early 2005, less than a year after the new Environmental Impact Assessment law came into force, Pan Yue launched what the media called "a storm of environmental assessment." Thirty major projects in 13 provinces, including several dams that had begun work without environmental permits, were halted. Yue defended the move saying "Many have treated the EIA Law as a rubber stamp. What I want to say is that it isn't, and we are determined to change the conventional attitude of the people." Fifty-six environmental NGOs issued a joint press release supporting the campaign.

Even though Pan's move was largely symbolic, as the EPA lacked the authority to cancel projects and could only levy relatively small fines, his actions encouraged activists and focused attention on the developers who were trying to ignore the need for an environmental permit. One of those projects was a massive dam that would be built on the Upper Yangtze River at Tiger Leaping Gorge, the largest of 21 dams to be built in Yunnan province as part of a five year plan. The reservoir behind the dam, second in size only to the Three Gorges project, would have drowned an ancient city, flooded farms in a region where farmland was scarce, and forced 100,000 people off their land.

By this time China had already built 22,000 big dams that displaced more than 16 million people. Many of the dispossessed had been promised rich rewards for moving, including new land and houses. But for most the compensation never arrived due to corrupt local officials, miserly compensation and a shortage of farmland. The situation, documented by China Youth Daily, was scandalous. An estimated estimating that 10 million of the displaced were living in poverty.

Up until the passage of the new environmental impact assessment law, ordinary farmers and villagers had no voice in the discussion of the impact of the dams on the land or on the people. The new EIA law, designed by Qu Geping, finally gave them a voice.

Exercising the Right to Participate

The new EIA gave individuals the right, for the first time, to participate in the environmental assessment of big projects, including dams. Activists and farmers who were opposed to the dam at Tiger Leaping Gorge seized the opportunity to organize public information meetings and circulate information about what had happed to other dispossessed farmers in the past. The farmers invited national media to come to the valley to hear their side of the story. For the first time, an effective resistance movement emerged.

The developers of the dam, the Huaneng Group, had support from local officials and did not take this resistance movement or the
requirement for an environmental permit seriously. In 2006 they began work on the dam, without a permit. Surveyors were sent into the valley by road and by helicopter to map out the flood lines. The farmers reacted by tearing up the survey stakes. For nearly a month the surveyors kept returning to replace the markers. Finally the farmers seized a group of surveyors and held them hostage while demanding a meeting with local officials. An angry mass demonstration erupted, filling the streets of a small farming town with 10,000 protesters.

Some local officials wanted to bring in the army to quell the protest, but the fact that the developers were acting illegally and had been caught doing so by the national media tipped the balance in favor of the protesters. Premier Wen Jiabao intervened, calling for more careful study of the project. The uprising ended with a promise by the Yunnan government that construction would stop would not resume without the consent of the villages.

This outcome was, perhaps, the worst scenario imagined by pro-development forces who originally opposed the passage of the EIA in the first place: a small and weak agency was taking sides with the farmers and holding up enormous projects. But from the point of view of the activists, empowering local people and cancelling the dam was start of something new. The Tiger Leaping Gorge campaign, in their view, marked the beginning of the green movement in China.

Opening up 'Democratic Space'

Pan Yue followed up his attack on developers who were ignoring the environmental agency with a series of searing exposes of China's environmental problems to the international press. In a widely circulated 2005 interview in Der Spiegel titled "he Chinese Miracle Will End Soon," Yue was remarkably candid. The miracle will end, he said "because the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one-third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one-fourth of our citizens do not have access to clean drinking water. One-third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Finally, five of the most polluted cities worldwide are in China. Air pollution has become a major problem for Chinese cities...In Beijing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment. Lung cancer has emerged as the No. 1 cause of death." Pan estimated the cost of pollution at up to 15 percent of GDP.

Rather than being criticized, Pan was promoted to vice-minister and the State Environmental Protection Agency was upgraded to a full Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2008. Citizen participation was a cornerstone of the new MEP.

In the years immediately following the passage of the EIA law in 2004, a kind of "democratic space" opened up around environmental issues. When the minister of environment and the premier were calling for frank discussion and national action to curb toxic waste and environmental destruction it was clear that environmental issues were becoming less politicized. This, in turn, made it much easier for ordinary Chinese to mount demonstrations against industries that were poisoning their air and water and garbage incinerators that were build in the midst of high rise apartments. The number of these demonstrations or "mass incidents" involving 100 or more people escalated rapidly into the tens of thousands per year, increasing by a reported 29 percent each year. Pollution was no longer automatically tolerated as a regrettable consequence of development; it now posed a clear threat to health and social stability.

It was in this more open atmosphere that Ma Jun returned to Beijing following a fellowship at Yale. He was determined to create a website that could publish reliable information on polluting industries. Like Qu Geping when he was assigned to the UNEP, Ma had been exploring the best practices of other countries that could be adapted in China. He was particularly interested in the example of the US Toxic Release Inventory, one of a number of Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers used in Europe and North America to record and track toxic emissions by factories. These registries had been created in the wake of the Bhopal disaster in India when thousands of residents were killed by toxic gasses released by the Union Carbide factory. In China, many factories continued to release unknown quantities of toxic substances and it was difficult for anyone living nearby to determine what and how much was released.

Ma opened a small office with two staff in 2006. The EPA gave him access to 6,500 reports of polluting factories. These were mapped onto Google Earth and published online and Ma's Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs was launched. Much more information became available in 2008 when the government brought in new Open Government Information regulations requiring the release of extensive data by all levels of government. The result was a kind of fire hose of information in a variety of formats as tens of thousands of records poured in. In 2012, in an effort to manage the data, the IPE petitioned the government to standardize information and release a broader range of data via a central database. The response from the Ministry exceeded Ma's expectation. The new regulations brought about extensive real-time reporting of pollutants by 15,000 state monitored enterprises. The volume of data continued to grow. By 2015, the dozen staff at IPE had received more than 200,000 reports and were developing computer programs and phone apps that could digest and display the growing flow of data from the factories.

Is this a Hoax?

As the data were categorized and displayed, the IPE began a series of campaigns that designed to stimulate media coverage, embarrass polluters and prompt action by local authorities. One of the early campaigns created a Pollution Information Transparency Index that today ranks 113 cities according to their level of disclosure of information. Ma wasn't sure how the cities would react but the index generated competition between leading cities and put pressure on cities that lagged behind in their reporting.

The response from the cities was encouraging but the overall enforcement of the law by local authorities remained weak. Looking for leverage to clean up factories, the IPE drew on the experience of international campaigns that focused on child labor and unsafe working conditions for factory workers in Southeast Asia. Their successes showed that brands are vulnerable to consumer pressure. The IPE began organizing their own campaigns to ferret out which of the international corporations were buying materials from dirty factories in China. They began by investigating the IT and textiles industries. Apple was among their first targets.

Finding out which multinational company is responsible for a polluting factory can be difficult. Most companies, as the IPE discovered, are secretive about their arrangements with suppliers for business reasons. To make the connection, Ma and his staff often resorted to obscure Hong Kong trade publications that list new contracts in their business news. In some cases the connections were more obvious. One polluting plastics factory was producing illuminated logos for iMacs, another was making touch screens for iPhones. Once links were established, the IPE sent out letters to the companies. The response was poor. "I still remember the first round when we sent letters to 29 IT brands," Ma recalled. "After a month only eight of them gave us a response and most of them simply said 'We received your letter.' That's it." Some of the factories, Ma later learned, didn't think there could possibly be any environmental NGOs in China and thought the letters might be a hoax.

Poison Apple

Apple's response, when it came, was a curt note stating that the company did not discuss its suppliers. While other manufacturers began to cooperate with the IPE, Apple held out. After 18 months, Ma launched a campaign dubbed "Poison Apple" calling on consumers to pressure the company to clean up. The campaign was effective; Apple came calling. Four years later, at a 2015 press conference, Ma released a corporate transparency index that ranks major corporations doing business in China, awarding higher scores for cleaning up pollution, collaborating with the IPE, monitoring their subsidiaries and remaining transparent. This time Apple was at the top of the list. By 2015 more than 2,000 factories have worked with the IPE to reduce pollution. Citizen action has been a galvanizing force for environmental protection.

In 2015, Ma Jun received the Skoll award for his innovative use of technology to monitor industry and promote public participation. The award included a prize of more than $1 million. He plans to use the funds to develop the next generation of phone apps that will allow consumers around the world to discover whether their favorite brands are being supplied by polluting factories.

Recently the government brought in additional changes to the environmental regulations that will strengthen the MEP by allowing it to levy larger and recurring fines for companies that violate environmental laws. The new regulations also created new opportunities for citizens or NGOs to sue companies for current or future damage to human health or the environment. These laws are now being tested.

There are, of course, many other local and international NGOs that are doing effective work and making use of the "democratic space" that surrounds environmental issues in China. Counting student groups at universities, there are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 green groups. These groups are part of a growing network of NGOs. Evidence of their diverse activities can be seen in a long weekly list of environmental news stories and activities by green activists across China of published by Wang Yongchen's Green Earth Volunteers. These groups also network with international organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Oxfam, and International Rivers that have offices in China.

Out of all the environmental NGOs, Ma Jun and the IPE may be the best single example of the kind of effective supervision of the environment from the ground up that Qu Geping envisioned 40 years ago when he set out to create an environmental protection agency for China.

Through the green movement many young activists are gaining experience working in NGOs, participating in the assessment of the social and environmental impacts of big projects, negotiating with factories, pressing officials to enforce laws, and collaborating with international green networks. Qu suggests that these experiences could have a long-term impact that goes beyond solving environmental problems.

"Within all the different sectors of law in China," Qu concluded, "we are the only one that has clear and transparent standards, and we're the only one that has a democratic process. That is why environmental law has an important role to play in the development of democracy in China."

Editor's Note: The original post has been updated.



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