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.