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The Grass-roots Greening of China

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
April 22, 2004
International Herald Tribune


Thirty-five years after a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, called for a day in support of the environment, the vibrant spirit of Earth Day is thriving in a most unlikely place: China.

Throughout China, people have become energized by their desire to contribute to the protection of nature. In so doing, they have also set the pace for the advance of civil society and the development of democracy.

There is much to do. The degree of environmental degradation and pollution in China is horrifying. Seven hundred million people regularly drink contaminated water, and polluted water along China's major rivers contributes to higher than average rates of cancer, miscarriage and stunted growth in many communities; 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, leading Western analysts to estimate that 300,000 people die prematurely in China from air pollution; and an estimated 20 million people or more will have to leave their homes because of lack of access to water or degraded land over the next 15 to 20 years.

Beijing is aware of these costs, particularly estimates by economists that the cost of environmental degradation and pollution is equal to roughly 8 percent to 12 percent of China's annual gross domestic product. Yet such recognition has not translated into action. Top officials have failed to invest the human or financial resources necessary to respond effectively to these challenges: at best, the wealthiest areas in China make limited headway by investing their own economic resources to protect the environment; at worst, as is the situation throughout most of the country, conditions continue to deteriorate.

The Chinese people, however, have seized the initiative, no longer willing to wait for the government to take action. In the 10 years since the founding of China's first official environmental nongovernmental organization, Friends of Nature, environmental activism has evolved considerably. Initially focused on issues considered politically safe, like environmental education, biodiversity protection and urban renewal, environmental groups now pursue more sensitive issues and adopt increasingly aggressive tactics.

Environmental lawsuits proliferate, challenging not only the polluting enterprises but also the local officials who protect these businesses.

People line up outside television studios in Beijing in hopes of persuading investigative journalists to expose a local polluter. Environmental activists elicit support from scientists and the news media to launch broad-based campaigns to prevent dams from being built; recently one such campaign garnered thousands of signatures on the Internet and halted plans for a dam on the Min River in Sichuan Province.

Even the most internationally sensitive projects, like proposed dams on the Mekong River, which would harm countries downstream like Laos and Vietnam, have become the target of China's environmental movement. And environmentalists now publicly challenge Beijing's veracity, asking for proof that funds dedicated for environmental protection in China's western provinces will not be secretly siphoned off for other purposes.

Grass-roots activism in China is flourishing not only because of organized environmental groups, but also because of ordinary citizens who are rising to the challenge through smaller but equally significant actions.

After watching a television program on the potential environmental hazards of batteries, Geng Haiying, a doctor in the port city of Dalian, became concerned that batteries in a local dump were leaking mercury into the soil and poisoning the fruits and vegetables consumed by her small daughter. She persuaded local stores to accept the batteries for recycling. When the Chinese government followed months later by enacting regulations on battery recycling, the public response was overwhelming.

As is implicit in Senator Nelson's call to arms, China's environmentalists are demanding that those who rule must do better. Their activism carries not only a goal of environmental protection but also of reforming China's system of governance. As Tang Xiyang, one of the founders of China's environmental movement, has declared, "Without democracy, there can be no environmental protection."

While China's environmental activists recognize that democracy is not a guarantor of a clean environment, they consider its basic principles - political transparency, freedom of speech, assembly and press, rule of law and official accountability through open and direct elections - to offer the greatest hope. For these activists, each expression of popular will, advance in political mobilization, and challenge to the closed and corrupt society that has contributed to such environmental devastation is also a victory for broader political change.

On the first Earth Day, Senator Nelson declared, "The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any effort made before." The Chinese people are heeding Senator Nelson's call and challenging their leaders to respond.

Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of the forthcoming book "The River Runs Black: the Environmental Challenge to China's Future."

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