In China, Tide May Be Turning Against Polluters

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"Twenty years ago, anyone who raised a fuss like that would have been locked up as a counterrevolutionary," Wang said.

Today, China's state-run media carry frequent accounts of lawsuits and public protests against plastics factories, paper mills, and smelters across the country, launched by angry citizens suffering from the pollution these industries generate.

In some of these reported cases, polluters have been forced to pay compensation or make costly improvements to clean up their operations.

For each successful case, however, Wang can point to a failed one that just as clearly illustrates the flaws of the Chinese system in which courts and administrative agencies still lack any independence.

Local governments in China often run industrial enterprises themselves. Even when they don't, they rely on such enterprises to provide jobs, economic growth, and tax revenues.

Local governments also control and fund the local courts, and when faced with a dispute between a polluting enterprise and complaining residents, local officials can easily pressure the courts or regulators to rule in favor of the polluters.

"In all of the suits that we have lost, the courts have not followed the law. Instead, they ignored the legal or technical merits of our case in order to support the local enterprises," Wang said.

Growing Citizen Protest

Pressure from China's increasingly aware public is likely to continue growing.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, environmentalism is one of the few fields in which social activism is tolerated in China, and college students are often at the forefront.

The report said that as of last year, more than 180 student environmental groups were active in Sichuan Province alone, working on issues such as public education, wetland conservation, and promotion of ecotourism.

There is no end of environmental issues to tackle in China.

Officials acknowledge that water pollution is worsening. Severe pollution in both marine and inland fishing areas last year caused more than $400 million in losses. Desertification and grassland degradation are both spreading, according to the government.

For years, China's urban air quality has ranked among the worst in the world, and according to the State Environmental Protection Agency, suspended particulate levels continued to rise last year.

More Responsive Government

Although the main priority of China's central planners is to sustain annual economic growth rates above 7 percent, they also intend to invest $85 billion over the next five years in the uphill battle to reduce industrial pollution.

Most Chinese environmental activists remain confident that the situation will improve.

A major factor is the steady rise in Chinese living standards, according to Liang Congjie, president of the Beijing-based NGO Friends of Nature. "As people get wealthier, they are more concerned with their quality of life, and environmental protection is a big part of that," said Liang.

"The government is beginning to listen," he added, "and they are now much more responsive than before."

His group focuses less on activism and more on public education aimed at popularizing "green culture."

One measure of progress on that front is China's burgeoning "green" foods industry. Last year, more than 1,200 Chinese enterprises produced $6 billion worth of products that met the Ministry of Agriculture's standards for such food.

Although standards and regulation are lax compared with those of many Western countries, the designation is supposed to require that foods be free from harmful chemicals. Well-to-do Chinese urbanites are now paying premium prices for such products.

Green products accounted for only 3 percent of China's food market last year, but officials predict that share will increase rapidly in years to come.

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