Fighting the Filth

Has the division of spoils from China’s rapid economic growth become a one-sided affair? The answer is less abstract when one considers the state of the nation’s environment.

Waterways are barricaded by garbage, mountains gouged with dusty pits, and the air in many major cities, most of the time, is a brown acrid broth that bestows respiratory impairments for which the long-term effects have yet to be seen. Moreover, nothing about the current model of economic growth makes it easy to estimate the cost it will take for public health and ecosystems to recover.

Documenting this in hard data is the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), which created China’s first public database of air, water, and hazardous waste pollution information. The non-governmental organization was founded in 2006 by former investigative journalist Ma Jun.

On April 6, Ma was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for playing a catalytic role in expanding the public’s access to environmental violations with IPE’s online database and digital map.

Reversing the effects of pollution will require greater expertise and the force of political will, but if there is an unexpected turn for the better, it’s possible that it will be traced back to committed advocates such as Ma Jun who have sought to institutionalize environmental protection programs.

A reporter at the Beijing bureau of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post during the 1990s, Ma also devotes much of his energy at IPE to tracking the environmental actions of large corporations. In 2011, he won international fame for exposing the role of Apple’s supply chain in China’s struggle against pollution.

Ma, 44, is also the author of the 1998 book, China’s Water Crisis, which dealt with water pollution challenges along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Ma spoke to Caixin about pollution trends he’s observed since penning his book, and the effectiveness of grassroots campaigns. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Caixin: Is China’s environment at its worst? Do you think it’s improved during the last ten years, or do we have to wait another ten years or even twenty?

Ma Jun: I think the worst is yet to come. We experienced rapid industrialization and urbanization, and the government has considered the environmental aspects of many of its policies. But fundamentally, with the same model of economic growth and development, there is no change at all.

Of course in the next decade, we need to accomplish a change of course with regard to the environment. But the whole trend of development, unless there is a big adjustment, unless the whole of society participates in the environmental movement ... there won’t be any change, even in two decades.

For improving the environment, China doesn’t lack the technology or the funds to do it. It simply lacks the power and the will to do it.

Caixin: What should be the fundamental driving force?

Ma Jun: In the history of environmental pollution, Western countries have used the rule of law. Achieving an environmental turning point can happen only from the strict implementation of laws and regulations, or from civil environmental litigation. But the rule of law in China is grossly inadequate, especially with its lax enforcement of environmental litigation. This is what plagues us now.

In addition, because of the way local governments pursue GDP growth over environmental protection, there is no momentum for change. A robust environmental movement could lead to an environmental inflection point across all of China, but as of right now no meaningful movement exists.

Caixin: China’s water problem is now much more pronounced than when you wrote your book in 1998. Have you encountered any new ways of addressing the water crisis?

Ma Jun: In fact, the state of the country’s water and overall environment has remained relatively consistent. But with whatever improvements there have been, there has also been deterioration. Particularly serious cases, such as the Huai River, have improved somewhat, but in most cases the situation is still deteriorating.

There are several trends in China’s water pollution, which sometimes begins at the tributaries and spreads to the main rivers, or spreads from the surface to underground, from cities to the countryside, or from dry land to the ocean.

It’s not that there’s no solution to the water crisis. The greatest irony is that even with pollution control technologies and new environmental laws, there is still no control over water pollution. Lax enforcement and illegal cost-cutting—these are the true causes of today’s situation. They reveal a lot about the true mode of economic development.

Caixin: In late 2011, the debate over PM 2.5—particles in the air less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter—had become hot in Beijing where the government set up its own monitoring systems. How do you view the progress against air pollution? Officials say the air has improved markedly. Do you agree?

Ma Jun: This is a very important event. In this case, the participation of the public caused the government to overcome a very large obstacle in the disclosure of important environmental information. In the beginning, the government simply refused to include PM 2.5 in its data. But in the past year, it’s switched its policy.

PM 2.5 is very specialized. We talked about it before and often took it to mean fine particulate matter. Because of this, the public managed to educate itself within the span of a few months. This shows that with strong communication tools, the public has the means to find information. The government also deserves recognition in this case because they are still willing to listen to public opinion. If public opinion is loud enough, the problem exists.

Right now we have the worst air pollution problem in Chinese history. In recent years, the problem has become much more complex. In the past, the problem was mainly larger particulate matter, which simply looked terrible. But the impact on people’s health was far smaller than the pollution we have now. At this point we know the smaller, finer particles pose the greatest risk to human health.

Caixin: In the last ten years, there have been a growing number of “not in my back yard,” or “nimby,” campaigns. Do you think this represents a trend in addressing environmental issues?

Ma Jun: Environmental issues have a direct impact on the public, and public awareness has also generally increased. They now understand that environmental issues will impact them and will be more alert and stronger in their opposition. This has been the cause for many environmental events in recent years.

Protests have grown ever-larger in recent years, which have not gone smoothly due to increasing friction with law enforcement agencies. When you have a large-scale project that greatly impacts the surrounding public, the decision-making process is still almost totally controlled by the government and business enterprises. The public basically has no role to play in these developments and their complaints against environmental degradation largely go unnoticed.

Caixin: Local governments who have faced “nimby” campaigns typically move to suppress them. Where do you think the government has gone wrong in reacting, and what can others in China learn from these movements?

Ma Jun: For most “nimby” movements, the protesters simply demand the protection of the environment, which is consistent with the objectives of the government.

To mitigate this situation, we must first openly allow the public to participate. At the very least, environmental impact assessment reports need to be made public.

The second is to open up channels of the legal system, to liberalize environmental litigation and allow activists to speak in public. Right now, this channel is essentially shut off.

On the government side, the two major legal tools that can make good use of environmental impact assessments are regulators that must enforce environmental laws and regulations. In short, the solutions to environmental problems must be legalized.

Gong Jing is a Caixin staff reporter.