Chinese Protest Polluters: Time for a Green Revolution?

2009-08-19  origin:TIME’s

For China, a country with plenty of environmental laws but far too little enforcement, the news was a minor revelation. Two chemical-factory officials convicted of releasing carbolic acid into a river - tainting a water source for 200,000 residents of coastal Jiangsu province - were sentenced on Aug. 14 to prison terms of six and 11 years. In the past, the act might have resulted in little more than a fine. The state-run Xinhua news service noted that it was the first time defendants who "caused environmental pollution were jailed on charges of spreading poison."

But as developments elsewhere in China this week made clear, it is too soon to declare a new era in environmental enforcement. On Aug. 17, hundreds of residents in northwestern Shaanxi province stormed a smelting plant blamed for sickening more than 600 children. The local government was supposed to have relocated people living around the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. plant by this year, but so far only 156 of 581 families have been moved, Xinhua reported. State media say the mayor of Baoji city vowed on Aug. 17 that the plant would be closed and not reopened until it is proven safe, but residents told the South China Morning Post that the plant was continuing to emit pollution even after the official's declaration. (See pictures of Beijing's attempt to clean up its air.)

The scenes of protest in Shaanxi mirror what happened three weeks ago in the central province of Hunan, where up to 1,000 villagers gathered on July 30 to protest the Changsha Xianghe chemical plant. More than 500 people in the area had been sickened, and two residents died of cadmium poisoning, which residents blamed on the factory, according to Xinhua. They had complained about the plant for years, and it, too, had been ordered to stop work this spring. But it was not until residents took to the streets that local authorities acted. "It's very easy to understand why these people protest. They need to defend their own interests," says Lin Guanming, a professor in the school of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at Peking University. "When things involve people's interests, health, and their descendants' health, it's not surprising they stand up to defend it."

Environmental demonstrations are not new to China. In 2005, an estimated 50,000 pollution-related protests occurred across the country. But this recent streak of protests stands out, as the country is clearly tiring of the ecological burden of its rapid industrial growth. "In recent years, we've seen a drastic increase in environmental protests," says Wang Canfa, professor at the China University of Political Science and Law. "It means that the environmental toll of China's rapid economic development over the years is gradually coming up to the surface." Last fall a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that some 80% of Chinese felt that protecting the environment should be a priority. (See pictures of China's infrastructure boom.)

The government has declared some progress in enforcement. In addition to the Jiangsu convictions, prosecutors in central Hunan province are pursuing 78 officials for neglecting their environmental responsibilities. Last month for the first time, an environmental group successfully filed a lawsuit against the government, when the All-China Environmental Federation sued a land-resources bureau in southwestern Guizhou province for approving a factory beside a scenic lake. And thanks in part to stricter pollution controls set up for last year's Summer Olympics, Beijing has enjoyed some of its best air quality in a decade.

For every step the government makes in improving regulations, however, it's faced with a case in which enforcement has failed dramatically. Slowing economic growth gives local officials a stronger incentive to flout environmental rules if it means protecting jobs and industry. In Shaanxi, for instance, the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. plant contributed one-sixth of the GDP for Fengxiang county, making it hard for a local official to shutter it amid a downturn.

But as the recent protests and prosecutions indicate, more officials may be forced into upholding environmental laws they'd otherwise ignore. Chinese citizens are ready for an environmental revolution. And as the recent protests have shown, if they can't get satisfaction in the courts, they're willing to pursue it in the streets.