International Herald Tribune
In the three years since he set up an environmental hotline, Wang Canfa has heard thousands of heartbreaking stories from people who say their health or livelihood has been imperiled by industrial pollution.
The complaints come from victims all across China, but when Wang decides he can help, his response seems more typically American. "The first thing we do is send lawyers and reporters," said Wang, director of the Beijing-based Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims.
The center is one of hundreds of environmental nongovernmental organizations that have sprung up in China in recent years. The development reflects not only a greater awareness about environmental issues on the part of the Chinese public, but also a greater willingness to challenge authorities and force improvements.
And despite China's well-earned image as a single-party dictatorship that frowns on civic activism and shuns public accountability, the victims sometimes succeed.
Hanging on the walls of Wang's cramped office in western Beijing are scrolls and banners bearing flowery inscriptions of thanks from the appreciative recipients of his help.
One is from the residents of a neighborhood in the northern port city of Tianjin who were plagued by the noxious, untreated exhaust of a coal-burning public heating plant operated by a government-affiliated real-estate developer.
Their complaints were ignored, and when the company began building a second plant, the residents took matters into their own hands, blockading the road to the new plant and shutting down the construction work.
The company finally responded by suing the activists for 600,000 yuan ($73,000) in damages. Then Wang alerted the press and sent in his lawyers. They determined that the company had violated regulations by allowing more than five years to lapse between getting approval for the new plant and building it.
"That was the legal technicality we got them on, and in the face of so much media attention, the company had to back down," Wang said.
The company dropped its demand for damages, paid 1,000 yuan in compensation to each of 100 of the residents, and, as a further goodwill gesture, built a new bicycle shelter for them. Most importantly, it adopted a cleaner design for the new heating plant.
Successful Legal Challenges
Cases such as this one show that China's growing body of environmental law and its fast-developing legal system now give ordinary people recourse that was previously unimaginable.