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.