A Review of Civic Environmentalism in China in 2012

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Some events – even frequently occurring events – may easily make us believe that 2012 was a year of improvement or one with developments different from previous years. Indeed, some quiet changes have taken place, but two major indices of environmental health – a compensation mechanism for victims of environmental disasters and a system for public participation in environmental events – have yet to really be established.

2012 is not the end of the world, but it also does not seem to be a major turning point for the environment. A major change in world events may be very unlikely. We quietly continue in one direction, but, as mere passengers on the train, we do not know our final destination.

Environmental Dialogue: Where Does It End?

In April 2012, Beijing hosted the third annual “Environmental Press Awards,” an award created by those in the news media who believe that non-governmental environmental reports make a difference. This year, a new “Citizen Reporter Prize” (公民记者奖 ) was established. Compared to mainstream journalists who are licensed as correspondent and have a powerful media apparatus on which they can rely, the voices of citizen journalists will have to be heard some other way.

Liu Futang, Wu Zhu, and Zhang Xiang received this award. Liu received the “Best Citizen Reporter Award” for his coverage of Hainan’s water-damaged coconut groves. Wu and Zhang both received an “Outstanding Citizen Reporter Award” as well; Wu, due to his astonishing micro-blog dedicated to protecting the Hoh Xil Nature Preserve (可可西里自然保护区) that led the [beer company] Snow (雪花啤酒) to change the course of its Globe Trekker promotion and avoid passing through the Hoh Xil preserve; and Zhang, for continuing his project of “Filming Beijing’s Sewage Drains” along Beijing’s riverbanks. This project prompted copycats in every part of the country to do the same, creating a popular surge in interest in sewage disposal in rivers.

After the ceremony, Liu was originally booked to do short interviews on Sina Weibo to talk briefly about the difficulties of being a citizen reporter on environmental issues. With advertisements out and preparations mostly complete, Liu suddenly said he had to urgently return to Hainan because of a developing, serious environmental event.

In retrospect, this was the first of China’s four “NIMBY movement” events in 2012. China Guodian Corporation (国电) and Hainan’s provincial government collaborated to build two massive coal burning power plants in Yinggehai County. Citizens in the area, however, were not confident in existing measures to limit contamination from factory pollutants and continued to fight against the plan. On 11 April 2012, they took to the streets in order to open a dialogue with policy makers.

Dialogue, however, is challenging and participants paid a heavy price. Many sustained injuries or were arrested and many policemen trying to “maintain social order” were also injured. Through his micro-blog, sixty-five year-old Liu Futang reported extensively on this incident. The next three environmental incidents of 2012, however, far outstripped even the intense struggle and media coverage seen in Yinggehai.

At the end of June 2012, the listed company HTC (宏达股份) invested in building a large-scale molybdenum-copper smelting plant in Shifang City, (located in Deyang, Sichuan). Shortly after the groundbreaking ceremony at the beginning of July, local residents angrily assembled in opposition to the project, causing its “permanent cancellation” in Shifang City.

By the end of July 2012, the same pattern of events played out in Jiangsu Province. Local residents protested Oji Paper (王子造纸) after they discovered that their sewers discharged into the sea. Although the company and local government both claimed that this project benefited the local environment since the wastewater was discharged in compliance with government standards and discharging the wastewater into the sea was preferable to discharging it into the Yangtze River. The protesters, however, were unmoved by government’s explanations and “occupied” City Hall. In the end the Nantong municipal government announced the “permanent cancellation” of the project.

Similarly, in early October, a villager announced a boycott of the PX project in Ningbo’s Zhenhai District. On the 22nd of that month, nearly 200 villagers made their way through blockaded roads to petition the district government. On that day, the Zhenhai District party committee and government sent out an official written statement promising that 20 village communities within the nearby ecological zone would be transformed and that 16 residences would be built to accommodate those affected by demolition. In the early morning of October 24, the Zhenhai district government issued a building permit to Sinopec (中石化), stating that the project was in compliance with environmental impact assessment (EIA) requirements and would operate under strict emissions standards. An amount of 3.6 billion yuan would be invested in environmental safety and villagers nearby would be eligible for relocation. The public, however, had little faith in these promises. By the evening of October 28, the Ningbo Municipal government announced that “Ningbo City and the project investors decided to study their plans and to halt the PX project. Any further progress on the refinery project will be suspended pending further scientific study.

On November 12, 2012, at a news conference for the Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress, Zhou Shengxian, head of the Ministry of Environment Protection stated that “it is normal that economic and social development will to some extent cause environmental problems. Currently, Chinese society is at a sensitive stage regarding the environment. These problems generally have the following characteristics: first is the tendency to build first and secure approvals later; second, improvements have yet to be made to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process; third, local governments are not entirely capable; fourth, societal risk assessment laws and mechanisms for major projects are still rudimentary.”

Minister Zhou said that four concrete steps will be taken to reduce such incidents in the future: (1) strengthening EIA laws and strictly implementing their provisions; (2) promoting open information by disclosing and subjecting to public supervision all environmental impact assessments and government commitments; (3) expanding public participation; and (4) establishing a mechanism for sound societal risk evaluation to prevent catastrophes.

Minister Zhou stated that central authorities and the State Council have already clearly defined regulations stating that all major construction projects must carry out social risk assessments. In the future, the Ministry of Environment Protection will actively engage relevant departments so as to carry out better social risk assessments.

Actually, these four major events are far from the only environmental conflicts during 2012. There are some cases that have yet to trigger real social conflict, such the “Qiandao Lake Irrigation Project” (千岛湖引水工程) being promoted in Zhejiang to bring drinking water from Qiandao Lake to Hangzhou, this project has been continuously debated on the internet. In addition, Shaanxi is already moving forward on the “Engineering Project to Draw from the Han River to Clean the Wei River” (引汉济渭工程), which is a plan to construct an aqueduct through the Qinling Mountains. The project would take water from the upper reaches of the Han River and bring it to the Wei River to help cleanse pollution from the latter and restore its ecosystem. Cases like these are far from entering the realm of a really substantive “environmental dialogue.” According to some statistics, China’s environmental conflicts are growing by 29% every year.

When the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee’s Standing Committee and the Wenzhou City Party Secretary Chen Derong (陈德荣) inspected the Wenzhou river embankment administration in June 2012, he claimed he wanted the rivers within the city to be “swimmable”. Environmentalists concerned with Wenzhou have expressed a strong willingness to participate in this process, but have not found an effective method for doing so. At the end of October, when Party Secretary Chen inspected Wenzhou’s sandbanks development, he said that the city was currently suffering an unusual shortage of land and that it must consider developing the sandbanks on the city’s periphery. According to environmentalists, however, Wenzhou’s sandbanks are an important resting place for migratory birds and an important habitat for local birds. The environmental costs of development, therefore, should be more closely assessed. Unfortunately, there has been no effective response.

In 2012, after being set aside for a period of time, Chongqing’s Small South China Sea hydroelectric power plant started rumors about plans to relocate local residents. Whether it is the local residents or the environmental organizations monitoring this case, it seems impossible to find a way to engage in a meaningful discussion about this project.

I believe that there will be more public awareness and discussion of major construction projects in 2013. However, this type of discussion is generally similar to “risk control” [seeking to prevent pollution before it happens]. With regard to real incidents of pollution, the magnitude of social conflict generally cannot compare with the four previously mentioned major events. This is an interesting phenomenon – people’s willingness to oppose risks that have not yet happened have grown, but they are still largely willing to accept existing dangers.

Environmental Rescue: A Promising Trend

One noteworthy trend in 2012 was an increase in “grassroots environmental rescue”.

In the past, environmental NGOs dealt with environmental incidents with a relatively simple “relief” approach, either by quietly participating or reporting them to supervision and law enforcement authorities. At the most, they reported to, and sought to work with, media outlets.

Black Panther Wildlife Conservation Station (黑豹野生动物保护站) has been focused on one thing from the very beginning: protecting Beijing Fangshan District’s birds and animals through “grassroots rescue”. Over the years, wearing seemingly ‘official’ camouflage jackets and driving fashionable SUVs, the conservationists lectured in villages, patrolled and monitored for any bird traps or poachers, and immediately called out offenders. As such, they had a good working relationship with the Fangshan District Forestry Police. For a long period of time, scissors in hand, they would cut down and burn netting designed to trap birds. Although the work was difficult, their results have been astonishing, effectively destroying local poachers and bird trappers.

The Black Panther’s style and environmental rescue more generally speaking, however, are relatively rare within China. Many environmental organizations avoid this kind of aid and attempt to pass it onto other organizations or are afraid to speak out on these issues because they are concerned about some unnamed “risks.”

The whole of China is like one giant killing field for wild animals. Huge nets, poisons, batteries, traps, and guns are now the “top predator” of China’s wildlife. Yet hidden on every street and alleyway are “restaurants” that are unadvertised, but actively selling, “game.” Places like Jingganshan’s Red Tourism Center have become known as a place for tourists to eat wild game. In Guangdong, eating wild animals is a part of local tradition. Moreover, throughout the country, shark fins, swallows’ nests, snakes, and frogs are proudly consumed. The world’s wild animals are being consumed by China’s insatiable hunger.

On November 11, when the Tianjin division of Let the Birds Fly (让候鸟飞) went on patrol at Beidagang Reservoir to tear down some clearly visible bird netting, they encountered a bird photography enthusiast. He said he noticed some birds appeared to be poisoned while he was shooting photos of the Oriental White Stork. Upon hearing this, they immediately rushed to the scene and discovered that birds were tragically being poisoned in the wetlands. It turns out that this occurs every year and this occurrence may not have even been the worst.

Next came five to six days and nights of continuous fighting. Through microblogging, many telephone calls, persistent media reports, and the assistance of netizens, the details of Tianjin’s Beidagang Oriental White Stork poisoning became clear. It turns out that some people had constructed a “poison pool” within the wetlands about one to two square meters in size. Fish and shrimp would go into the pools and be exposed to highly toxic pesticides like carbofuran and endosulfan. Then the poisoned fish and shrimp would be released back into the wetlands. Migrating flocks of Whooper Swans, Oriental Storks, Spot-billed Ducks, Eurasian Coots, and other wetland birds that eat the poisoned animals paid a disastrous price when they passed through. At least 22 Oriental White Storks were poisoned along with hundreds of other “sacrificial lambs”.

The work of this small group from “Let the Birds Fly” achieved amazing results. They organized an environmental rescue program made up of volunteers that rescued at least 13 Oriental White Storks, mobilizing all possible social forces to participate in this rescue effort. In addition, older rescue organizations like Blue Sky (蓝天救援队), Jet Li’s One Foundation ( 壹基金救援联盟), Green Rescue Team (绿野救援队), and Haotian Rescue Team 昊天救援队, which used to engage in humanitarian relief, also begun their own environmental rescue efforts. The police, fire department, wildlife conservation stations, veterinarians, and other state-sponsored rescue organizations are also starting to participate in these activities for the first time. Although everyone seems inexperienced, they are cooperating closely and demonstrating a strong ability to learn during rescue operations.

To see nongovernmental environmental rescue take this form is quite tragic. Certainly, one breakthrough is that non-governmental disaster relief organizations have started to ally with nongovernmental organizations In the future, the two sides will undoubtedly cooperate more on environmental rescue work. Secondly, in the event of an “environmental disaster”, those first at the scene will be more proactively aware of necessary on-site rescue and have a greater capacity for mobilizing society, specialized rescue funds, experienced help, and more real world experience that will allow them to develop a practical and robust skill set.

Societal Support: Always Expected, Still Difficult to Achieve

If we say that environmental protection is society “collectively rescuing” the environment from a potential or existing disaster, then the extent of Chinese society’s support for the environment is still unclear. When assistance is not necessary, they express strong commitment to the cause; when assistance is necessary, however, they are completely absent.

From the perspective of environmental victims, legal assistance is the most important type of support. Interestingly, China’s laws are oriented less towards punishing those who create environmental disasters, and more to containing the activities of environmentalists. For example, on July 20, 2012, a sickly Liu Futang was arrested by the Hainan Police for “illegal business operations”. In reality, however, his arrest was for his four months of actively reporting on Hainan’s Yinggehai incident. Similarly, Friends of Nature (自然之友) found that it was not so easy to advocate for the environment when they tried to file a public interest lawsuit in a case of chromium pollution in Yunnan. In 2012, a newly revised Civil Procedure Law (民事诉讼法) was passed and included “legal provisions for relevant organizations” to file public welfare lawsuits. Environmental NGOs filing public welfare lawsuits, however, began to encounter a problem known as “judicial discretion.” Public interest environmental lawyers have found that, in the vast majority of cases, most Social Associations and Civil Non-enterprise Institutions, do not qualify as “relevant organizations,” thererby allowing judges to throw out the case. [Editor’s Note: Social Associations (shehui tuanti) and Civil Non-enterprise Units (minban feiqiye) are the two categories of legally registered nonprofit organizations in China. It should be noted that recent revisions of the Environmental Protection Law have also tried to narrow the scope of organizations qualified to file a public interest environmental lawsuit. In one revision of the law, the All-China Environment Federation, a GONGO established by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, was listed as the only qualified “social organization.” When that revision was criticized, a later revision expanded the number of “qualified organizations” to a mere 13. See the CDB article, “View from the Media: Controversy over the Environmental Public Lawsuit.”]

Similarly, the new Environmental Protection Law submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has eliminated clauses concerning “accrued daily penalties,” disclosure of environmental information to the public, environmental public interest litigation, environmental legislative hearings, and public participation in environmental impact assessments. If such a law was adopted, public participation in environmental protection would become even more difficult.

Regarding disclosure of information, there was distinct progress in policy and legislation during 2012. On October 9, the Ministry of Environmental Protection quietly issued an announcement that the “Regulations on Open Government Information in the People’s Republic of China,” was to have been implemented starting May 1, 2008. Prior to that, on January 30, 2008, the former State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA, 国家环境保护总局) had published a “Circular Regarding Public Requests to Disclose Environmental Impact Assessment Documents for Construction Projects” (Circular [2008] No. 50). Some of the provisions in that Circular were not in accordance with the Open Government Information Regulations and so were to have been abolished. Looking carefully at the 2008 “Circular”, you will find it is a response addressed by SEPA to the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau. The first opinion in that response states that “relevant Environmental Protection departments, in the middle of examining and approving environmental impact assessments compiled from construction project documents, including environmental impact reports, should not be considered within the scope of government information to be disclosed as specified by the “Environmental Information Disclosure Measure (Trial).” But [after the promulgation of the above Open Government Information regulations], Environmental Protection departments must now truthfully respond to public requests for EIAs on construction projects and provide that information.

On October 30, 2012, the Ministry of Environmental Protection released an “Announcement on Further Strengthening Environmental Protection Information Disclosure Work,” which explicitly requires the “complete implementation of newly revised air quality standards and timely releases of accurate surveillance information.” In accordance with requirements in the “New Standards for First Stage Monitoring of Air Quality,” Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Pearl River Delta, as well as other key regions, municipalities, provincial capitals, and 74 cities were to begin monitoring air quality in 2012 and disclosing the information at the end of December. By 2013, 113 Key Environmental Protection Cities and National Environmental Protection Model Cities began such monitoring and disclosure. By the end of 2015 all prefecture-level cities will similarly have to monitor and disclose this information. They will also be improving the platform used to disclose air quality information in accordance with new standards for publishing monitored data.”

By contrast, in 2012, China’s environmental protection foundations did not significantly advance its support of grassroots environmental protection. In fact, some long-standing environmental projects suffered and NGOs began complaining, “foundations, why have you forsaken me?”

These foundation certainly have not meant to cheat people, but their funding process is one that “shows intent but not the will” and even “no intent or will.” This has led to criticism from society, and especially denunciations from those in need. The general understanding is that the funding process of Chinese foundations should have evolved early on from an “approval-type” to a “service-type” model, but a comprehensive look at China’s grassroots foundations in 2012 shows that they still operate more like “arbitrary dictators.” [Editor’s Note: By “grassroots foundations” (caogen jijinhui), the author means foundations that were established by private individuals or companies, as opposed foundations with close government ties.]

Here’s a simple analysis. A reasonable funding process should be based on foundations using their vision to quickly identify needs in the sector in order to fund projects or teams. After quickly gathering resources, the Foundation should determine which projects to fund as soon as possible – including time duration, funding amounts, methods – and, within a month, complete the funding process. This funding model has two important characteristics: first, the foundation will always receive more requests for funding than it can support, and second, the funding process will be short and simple to navigate. Of course, this will test the capacity of the foundation staff and, even more, the foundation’s funding framework.

However, China’s grassroots foundations – already considered the best type of foundations in the country – remain obsessed with and stuck in “project approval” mode. This mode is rife with flaws and its arrogance frustrates many people.

An even more cruel aspect of this funding method is that the “approval system” inevitably produces vicious competition. If you submit a call for funding, hundreds upon thousands of applications will appear overnight. Then, a special examination team will reduce the pile of applications by half in the first round, followed by another 50% reduction by another expert, followed by yet another reduction by half through interviews, followed by close examination by a specialist who yet again cuts the pile in half, followed by a final ruling from another specialists who again cuts the pile in half, and finally followed by a funding team that picks one project from the remaining applicants. This kind of exhausting, morally-bankrupt funding process takes so long that it could be compared to prisoners awaiting trial with a level of cruelty similar to gladiatorial combat in the ring.

If donors are unable to recognize that the recipients of their aid are China’s main environmental protection actors that deserve attention and are unwilling to lurk in the shadows or hide away; if donors are unable to realize the value in the ways that their money is spent and suspect that it is being wasted on a dream, then China’s grassroots foundations can be laid to rest. Instead, China’s environmental NGOs can take advantage of the microblogging era, the age of Taobao and of WeChat on cellphones, and of crowd-sourced funding, by turning to the public for funding.

Of course, the environmental NGO funding system NGOs in China is not just about money, although getting enough funds is still the primary concern. But the rising up of ordinary people in Chinese society, and changes in legal aid, media, government, science and technology, volunteerism, and medical assistance, will perhaps challenge the capacity of environmental NGO staff. From this perspective, the golden era for China’s grassroots environmental campaign is coming although the Chinese way will forever go beyond people’s expectations, and will certainly have its own distinctive Chinese characteristics.

In Brief

Feng Yongfeng, founder of the Green Beagle Environment Institute (达尔问自然求知社) and Nature University (自然大学), reviews the ups and downs in civic environmentalism in 2012.
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