Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From Hu to Xi: China’s Grip on Environmental Activism: PART II: Environmental Activism from Above and Below

Environmental Activism from Above and Below

In Part 1 of this series,  Dui Hua analyzed a decade of environmental activism, both mass protests and individual actions, and the price paid by those trying to protect the environment. In Part 2, Dui Hua looks at civil society engagement in activism to protect the environment, and China’s shrinking space for the work of environmental NGOs.

Civil Society

The concept of environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) was entirely foreign to China until, in the nation’s first bid for the Olympic Games in 1993, its delegation was asked by the International Olympic Committee whether China had ENGOs. A year later, China’s first ENGO, Friends of Nature, formerly known as The Academy for Green Culture, was formally incorporated. Both grassroots and foreign-funded ENGOs thereafter emerged, and provided help for victims stricken by environmental disasters.The most famous of these were the deadly floods along the Yangtze River in 1998, caused by deforestation, and the Nu River hydropower project, which would have flooded a natural UNESCO site on the lower reaches of the river in Yunnan, had then-prime minister Wen Jiabo not put a dam-building moratorium on the river due to ecological concerns.

An early criminal case involving six villagers, all surnamed Ye, who joined an environmental non-profit organization did not garner the attention it deserves. The leading members were sentenced in 2010 to 6-18 years’ imprisonment for multiple violent offenses, including organizing/leading an organization of a gangland nature. The case took place in Guangdong’s Huangshawei Township, not far from another township well-known for ceramics, where a clay quarry began operation in 2008. Southern Farmer’s Daily reported that half of the quarry sites were illegal and over 300 haul trucks without mechanical covers passed through Huangshawei Township every day, causing both safety hazards and considerable dust pollution. As government officials refused to take measures to protect the villagers, the villagers set up The Huangshawei Education Foundation in July 2009 to defend their environmental rights. The foundation used its funds to provide subsidies to affected villagers and hired armed road guards to intercept haul trucks. Within two months of its founding, the foundation successfully pressed the local government and quarry operation for compensation over pollution. In October 2009, a verbal argument turned into a group brawl after the foundation members intercepted a haul trucker who refused to use a mechanical cover. The foundation was then labelled a “gangland” organization and the compensation it had received from the government was cited as evidence of extortion. In 2017, a Chinese government response provided to Dui Hua confirmed that one of the foundation members, Ye Bailian (叶百练), received three sentence reductions, 32 months in total between 2013 and 2017. Ye is now scheduled for release on May 6, 2025.

According to Southern Farmer’s Daily, similar environmental rights groups emerged in four nearby villages after The Huangshawei Foundation was founded in 2009. While it is unclear whether they all suffered the same fate, the fact that all of them targeted the same clay mining operations reflected a growing trend in grassroots environmental consciousness. Over the two decades since 1994, there was an exponential growth in ENGOs nationwide. The number had grown from just nine in 1994 to 8,000 in 2017, according to Gulf News, citing the French Embassy in Beijing. ENGOs were said to have enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom – many, in fact, were co-funded by local governments to evaluate the environmental impact of factories and even to critique public policy.

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping has tightened his grip on environmental activism, particularly since the Foreign NGO Law came into effect in 2017. The law requires all foreign NGOs to abide by strict requirements related to funding sources and registration procedures, which has sharply limited their ability to support or collaborate with Chinese NGOs, including ENGOs. Police can also question foreign NGO employees and seal off their assets and offices. While in 2016 there had been about 7,000 foreign NGOs active in China, according to former vice foreign minister Fu Ying, in January 2019 ChinaFile reported that the number of new foreign NGOs registering to work in China dropped from 303 in 2017 to only 133 in 2018. Of these, the number of ENGOs dropped from 36 to 13 (although the number of ENGOs applying for temporary registration increased from 39 to 71, very likely indicating efforts to work around the difficulties of registering to operate permanently in China.) While exact numbers vary according to different reports, the drop in registration from the beginning of 2017, when the law went into effect, is consistent across sources. An ENGO from the U.S. said of its work in China that “[w]e chose to stop all activities to avoid putting ourselves and partners at risk… it’s not like the law allows any wriggle room.”
A poster of Green Leaf Action, an
environmental group founded by Xue Renyi,
calls on the Chinese government to improve
food safety and air and water quality.
Image Credit: Boxun

Members of Green Leaf Action, a Chongqing-based environmental group that promoted food safety, clean air, and clean water, were among the first to face suppression for having “foreign connections.” In December 2016, founder Xue Renyi (薛仁义) was warned by police that his group was “controlled” and “manipulated” by overseas forces. Xue was later detained for picking quarrels and provoking troubles in May 2018, and in January 2019, Xue’s fiancée claimed that she had not been allowed to visit him in custody. Another active member of Green Leaf Action, Pan Bin (潘斌), was sentenced in December 2018 to four years’ imprisonment for the same offense.

The case of Liu Shu (刘曙) indicates that environmental surveying can also be considered a state secret. In 2013, the Ministry of Environmental Protection called soil pollution information a state secret in a reply to a Beijing lawyer’s request to make the information public. Liu, founder of ENGO Shuguang Green, was accused of revealing China’s state secrets related to counterespionage work in October 2016. Liu collected soil and paddy samples to examine the level of heavy metal pollution in the waters of Lake Dongting, a shallow lake in northeast Hunan. One of her samples indicated that heavy metal pollution exceeded the national limits by 715 times. In January 2016, Liu wrote that the degree of freedom in the realm of environmental protection had significantly declined because she had faced repeated harassment in the three years since her ENGO came into operation in 2013. Liu was given a ten-day administrative detention by the Changsha state security bureau.


China appears to have encouraged the public to monitor environmental affairs in the “war on pollution” that began in early 2013. The initiative has the intended goal to hold local governments accountable by encouraging informers to report environmental violations. In 2015, substantive amendments were made to the Environmental Protection Law, which imposes harsher penalties against polluters and requires that enterprises disclose information about discharged pollutants and that authorities keep reports filed by whistleblowers confidential.

But disclosing information concerning an imminent danger to public health, safety, or the natural environment remains a highly risky proposition. In March 2018, Lei Ping (雷萍) was accused of rumor mongering after she made complaints online about illegal quarrying and disposal facilities near a national-level conservation area in her hometown of Xinyi City, Guangdong. Lei volunteered for the government-funded non-profit China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. Lei Ping spent ten days in detention and she was released in part due to public outcry; the foundation had issued a public letter to police calling for her release. Sixth Tone, a sister publication of The Paper (澎湃), cited a Beijing-based lawyer specializing in environmental cases as saying that the handling of Lei’s case by police gave a bad impression to the public that informers were being punished to cover up private business violations.

A group of protesters from Funing, Jiangsu, assemble in support of environmental whistleblower Ji Shulong. The banner says: “Xi Jinping, release environmental rights defender Ji Shulong. We want blue mountains and green waters, not mountains of gold and silver. Ji Shulong is innocent.”
Image Credit: RFA

Independent whistleblowers without support from government-funded environmental groups are not as fortunate. Ji Shulong (嵇书龙) tipped off the environmental authorities in Beijing that a local government in Yangcheng, Jiangsu, planned to reintroduce Aoyang Industrial Park (Yancheng is the same prefecture-level city where the plant explosion mentioned in Part I occurred in March 2019). Aoyang is a chemical enterprise widely discredited even by domestic news media for causing severe pollution, and has previously been ordered to suspend production for environmental violations. Ji led a group of villagers to petition Beijing to request intervention from the central government after Aoyang seized and converted approximately 130,000 square meters (32 acres) of farmland into a landfill. Ji continued her efforts to expose Aoyang’s environmental violations after completing her two-year sentence for picking quarrels in 2014. In October 2017, Ji was re-detained for the same offense, and remains incarcerated after spending 21 months in custody at the time of writing.

Zhang Wenqi (张文奇) is yet another case highlighting how people who expose wrongdoing on environmental issues are given insufficient protection and subjected to retaliation . In July 2018, Zhang was sentenced to 17 months’ imprisonment for damaging business reputations and causing financial losses to three companies in his home province of Henan, even though the environmental authorities had verified Zhang’s complaints. Having worked for a Shanghai-based biochemical technology company, Zhang is well-informed about the environmental impact caused by crystal violet lactone (CVL), a dye used in carbonless copying paper. In 2014, Zhang found pollutants such as ammonia and heavy metals in the gases and solid waste discharged by the two manufacturers of CVL in Henan, and witnessed the companies illegally dumping waste near the industrial zone. Both manufacturers were connected to the same parent paper company, a major taxpayer in Wuzhi County. Unconvinced by the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s 2015 investigation that rebutted Zhang’s complaints that the companies were manufacturing CVL, Zhang continued to file anonymous reports against environmental violations. A year later, the Henan provincial environmental bureau confirmed Zhang’s allegations and ordered the companies to terminate CVL production. In March 2017, however, Zhang was detained for using a fake identity to fabricate the accusations against the companies over the past three years for personal gain. In a document submitted to the court, the parent company claimed that Zhang’s allegations had cost them a financial loss of 800,000 yuan, even though the defence lawyer claimed that the amount had not been independently verified by auditors.

Despite the positive publicity Xi has received for his stated commitment to “ecological civilization,” the term is in fact not Xi’s own creation. It was first coined by Hu Jintao in 2007 as a guiding principle to cure environmental woes associated with China’s biggest and fastest industrial revolution in the world. From Hu to Xi, both regimes have made commitments to climate change targets and rolled out a number of corresponding measures to curb pollution. However, an article from The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) in 2014 argued that there was an apparent gap between rhetoric and reality in China’s air pollution control, due to an absence of a robust legal system, a free press, and an active civil society.

After years of government-driven environmental efforts, China remains the world’s biggest polluter. It emits more carbon dioxide than the U.S. and EU combined. NBR explained that historical precedents have demonstrated that people who bore the direct consequences of pollution provided the driving forces of environmental reform. A top-down approach to environmental governance could not succeed in bringing about substantive changes without active assistance from below.

Factors impeding the progress of grassroots environmental protection persist, or have even increased, in Xi’s “new era.” Xi shows few signs of tolerating individual rights to protest about environmental problems. His state security and NGO legislation have created an unfavourable atmosphere for environmental civil society, making activists who join independent groups more likely than ever to fall victim to state security charges. The cases discussed in this article also indicate that mechanisms intended to guarantee the safety of environmental whistleblowers are insufficient. To make meaningful progress in environmental protection both domestically and internationally, the Chinese government must reconsider its approach to environmental governance. It must respect human rights, because freedom of expression, assembly, and association are indispensable to the protection of public health and the environment.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

From Hu to Xi: China’s Grip on Environmental Activism PART I: Mass Protests and the Threat to Activists

Threats to China’s natural environment, and the resulting negative impact on public health and well-being, have galvanized an impressive range of individuals and groups across Chinese society. Whatever the diversity of the groups, they all face risks of official harassment, including detention and prison sentences. For example, in November 2018, a group of Buddhist monks from Sansheng Temple in Changzhou, Jiangsu, attempted to stop the construction of an underground rainwater pipe in front of a chemical plant across from the temple. While authorities claimed that the construction was intended to repair a road and improve traffic for local residents, the monks believed that the pipes would be used to dump industrial waste from the plant. This striking case of religious involvement in environmental activism did not surface until Chinese news media sources reported in July 2019 that three monks had been indicted for “disrupting public services.” This case not only demonstrates the range of Chinese groups involved in environmental protection, but also the growing mistrust of official narratives concerning environmental matters, and the risk of action against infrastructure projects that threaten to damage the environment.

Having catapulted through the ranks of developing countries during the four decades of economic reform, China is now the world’s second largest economy. Its breakneck GDP growth, however, comes at the cost of egregious environmental degradation. Smog continues to blanket major cities surrounding heavy-industry hubs, while riverfront, lakeside, and coastal localities are hit hard by water contamination. Over the years, China has vowed to combat pollution and take a global lead in fighting climate change. In November 2016, Xi Jinping spoke to President Donald Trump about China’s commitment to combat climate change “whatever the circumstances,” in stark contrast to Trump’s climate change scepticism and subsequent withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Domestically, China is making efforts to keep its environmental promises, although its carbon inventory for 2014, submitted to the UN in June 2019, revealed a surge of 53.5% over the 10-year period from 2004-2014. During the “Two Sessions” meetings in 2017, Li Keqiang pledged to make the nation’s smoggy skies “blue again” and curb pollution caused by burning coal for heat and electricity. Xi echoed the same sentiment by calling for constructing a system of an “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming 生态文明) to bring back “clear waters and green mountains” for his “New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” To redress the damages done to skies, water, and soil, authorities prosecuted 42,195 individuals nationwide for environmental offenses in 2018, including deforestation and illegal mining and fishing activities, a one-fifth increase in prosecutions compared to 2017.

Algae Bloom on Lake Tai Image Credit Global
Despite sharing the same green agenda with the central leadership, local governments have not steered away from their pursuit of GDP growth. They continue to cooperate with police, prosecutors, and judges to maintain social order. Two significant cases during the Hu Jintao administration indicated that environmental activists face reprisals from officials or businesses. The first case involved Wu Lihong (吴立红), who was sentenced in 2007 to three years’ imprisonment for extortion for bringing attention to the environmental plight of Lake Tai, China’s third largest freshwater body in the coastal province of Jiangsu. Once an agricultural heartland, the surrounding region of the lake is now home to thousands of chemical plants that are continuing to dump effluent straight into the lake. Liu Futang (刘福堂), another activist who, like Wu Lihong, had earned the nickname "Eco-Warrior”(huanbaoweishi 环保卫士), was named the Person of the Year 2007 for his environmental work by South Reviews, a subsidiary of Guangzhou Daily News Group, and named the Person of the Year 2011 by the Hainan Channel of Despite his fame, Liu was given a three-year suspended sentence for illegal business activity, a charge stemming from his self-publishing of books that exposed pollution scandals in the southernmost province of Hainan.

The impetus unleashed by the army of green activists continues to be deemed a destabilizing force under Xi, who has put the utmost emphasis on the longstanding policy of “stability above all else” to ensure the party’s “perennial ruling status,” as well as his permanent role as the leadership core. Despite nationwide government-driven initiatives to strengthen environmental protection, Beijing often construes criticisms “from below” -- ie, from individuals and grassroots organizations -- about environmental policies as endangering the foundations of China’s economic miracle. Space for environmental activism has shrunk, as a result of the slate of legislation Xi introduced against perceived threats to state security between 2014 and 2016, including the National Security Law, the Counterespionage Law, and the Cybersecurity Law. Since Xi’s rise to power in 2012, Dui Hua’s political prisoner database has recorded over 50 individuals who have been detained, arrested, or imprisoned for participating in environmental protests, joining environmental civil society organizations that promote environmental awareness, or whistleblowing.

Environmental protests

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated that half the large-scale protests between 2000 and 2013 were triggered by concerns over pollution and lack of transparency on environmental issues. Such protests were linked to land expropriation and forcible relocation. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection claimed that major environmental protests surged by 120 percent a year before Xi’s rise to power, after which the Chinese government stopped releasing official statistics. At that time, violent protests initiated by parents of children suffering from lead poisoning due to heavy metal pollution from smelting and chemical plants frequently made domestic and international headlines.

Observers continue to believe that environmental concerns are a prime cause for mass incidents during Xi’s administration. Some estimates suggest that there were as many as 30,000 or even 50,000 anti-pollution demonstrations over the four-year period from 2013 to 2017. When Xi began his first term as president, grassroots protests organized by residents of “cancer villages” were a flashpoint for mass incidents. “Cancer villages” refer to communities near chemical, pharmaceutical, or power plants where cancer rates far exceed the national average. In 2013, it was estimated that 459 cancer villages were spread across every province except Qinghai and Tibet. A peaceful protest occurred in Shantou’s Guiyu Township in March 2016. Over 10,000 residents assembled to demand that the township government terminate the construction of a waste incineration plant. Once the world’s largest e-waste dumping site, Guiyu is called Guangdong’s No.1 cancer village, as villagers have reported a suspiciously high number of deaths from cancer. As a result of the four-day protest, the township government gave in and shelved the incinerator proposal.

There are signs that local governments were willing to yield to protesters’ demands to scrap or even terminate infrastructure projects during the Hu years, and even the early years of Xi’s era. From 2011-2016, official proposals to build or expand Para-Xylene (PX) factories triggered mass demonstrations every year across China, including in DalianNingboKunmingMaomingShanghai, and Longkou. PX is a chemical necessary for producing clothes and plastic bottles. Residents feared that the chemicals from the nearby PX factories would cause air pollution and even cancers. These anti-PX plant protests successfully pressured local governments to compromise, at least temporarily, in an attempt to pacify local discontent. The protest in Dalian, for instance, was caused by fears about PX leakage after a typhoon struck the city and breached the factory’s dyke. Although the government promised to suspend production and relocate the factory, Chinese news media reported in the following year that the factory had clandestinely resumed operation of the the PX plant.

In November 2017, Michael Standaert wrote in Yale Environment 360 that fewer environmental protests were taking place in China. This argument is in line with Dui Hua’s observation that unofficial news media sources have been reporting noticeably fewer protests in recent years, in part because demonstrations, as Standaert noted, tended to be quickly broken up by police. The pesticide factory blast in Yancheng, Jiangsu, in March 2018 that caused nearly 80 deaths and dozens injured reportedly did not trigger any mass incidents. Authorities were swift to suppress signs of social instability by detaining family members of the deceased and injured who questioned the government’s handling of the man-made disaster. Zhang Wenbin (张文斌), a volunteer from a local environmental group, was summoned by police for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” after he criticized local authorities for refusing to evacuate nearby residents after the blast and warned about the possible risks of contamination. Another individual, Cao Jianshan (曹建山) was criminally detained for “defamation” in April, after he called on the government to disclose information about the deceased victims. The authorities had previously rejected Cao’s request on the grounds that publicizing such information would cause “great harm to their family members.”

Since June 2019, mass protests against official plans to build waste incinerator plants have become the latest type of environmental protest to take place in China. One week after hundreds of thousands of residents filled the streets in Yu’nan County, Guangdong, another large protest erupted in Wuhan, Hubei, on June 28, 2019. In mid-June, Wuhan protesters first learned of the government’s plan to build an incinerator plant on an existing landfill in a densely populated residential area. While the landfill is already causing severe land and ground water pollution, protesters are even more alarmed by the incinerator proposal, which had been previously shelved. The protests underscored the mounting discontent not just about public health, but also over the lack of public consultation and transparency of the projects. RFA reported that around 20 protesters were detained, many of whom were WeChat users who posted or forwarded information about the protests. The government quickly blocked mobile phone signals and possible contacts with Hong Kong, where the controversial extradition bill in the former British colony set in motion successive rallies and clashes in June 2019.

Dui Hua’s research into Chinese-language judgment websites has uncovered approximately 20 criminal cases involving criminalization of anti-pollution protests since 2014. Some of them involved violence and did not receive any media coverage. While the offense of picking quarrels and provoking troubles is commonly used against protesters, other offenses include gathering a crowd to disturb social order, gathering a crowd to attack an organ of the state, and holding an illegal assembly. Among the protests recorded in the judgment websites, one broke out in July 2017 in Xiangtan, Hunan, where hundreds of villagers protested the Huashi township government's plan to construct an animal carcass disposal plant, which would specialize in disposing of piles of pigs that had died of swine fever. The protesters used WeChat and blogs to discuss their fear of pollution and raised funds to print leaflets and produce banners. At its peak on August 3, over a thousand villagers took to the streets. (On the exact same day a year later, China reported its first case of African swine fever in Shenyang, Liaoning.) The Huashi township government refused to back down. Four leading protesters were sentenced from nine months' to one year’s imprisonment for gathering a crowd to disrupt an organ of the state.

Lawyer-turned-environmental activist Chen Wuquan initiates the “War to Protect the Sea” against illegal reclamation and destruction of marine resources in his home village in Zhanjiang, Guangdong, in 2017. Photo Credit: RFA

The case of Chen Wuquan (陈武权) indicates that even peaceful protesters can receive severe sentences. In 2012, Chen Wuquan represented Chen Kegui, nephew of prominent dissident Chen Guangcheng, before his law license was rescinded in the same year for taking the sensitive case. Chen Wuquan (no relation to either Chen Guangcheng or his nephew Chen Kegui) returned to his home village in Zhanjiang, Guangdong, and initiated a campaign to protect the tidal flats and natural abundance that has provided a livelihood for the villagers for centuries. Chen Wuquan argued that the destruction of marine life in his village was caused by forced demolition, land reclamation, and mangrove logging—all conducted without the villagers’ consent. Prior to detention in February 2018, Chen Wuquan staged a seaside protest with over a dozen villagers, calling on the government to terminate the reclamation project. In January 2019, Chen Wuquan was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for picking quarrels and provoking troubles, and six other villagers were each sentenced to 12-18 months for the same offense.

Read Part II to learn about civil society activism and the shrinking space for environmental NGOs.