Spin of a Crooked Record

Hundreds of villagers in Hebei province discovered they were victims of identity theft—and in demanding officials find the culprit, they became the recipients of harassment and legal bills. Instead of seeing a shakeout, the villagers watched environmental authorities and local courts give shelter to the assessors responsible for blatant fraud.

In 2009, officials in Panguanying village, near Qinghuangdao, announced that nearly seven hectares of land would be seized by the government for development. By the end of the year, when construction had already begun, the villagers learned that the land would be used for a massive waste incineration project.

Nearby villagers were angry that they had never been informed of the actual purpose of the project and its potential impact. They found out that the provincial environmental protection bureau approved the project earlier that year, with an assessment report that contained their signatures.

The villagers say their signatures were forged on the report used to gain approval from the provincial government.

The evaluation report, produced by the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences (CAMS), a large environmental research institution affiliated with the China Meteorological Administration (CMA), claimed that the one hundred questionnaires sent to farmers in several villages including Panguanying gave unanimous support to the incinerator project.

The report said the “waste incineration project’s environmental impact meets acceptable standards for the neighboring region. It is thus feasible.”

CAMS declined requests for comment, saying: “The experts responsible for the project are all unavailable for interview as they are currently on business trips.”

In September 2010, Pan Zhizhong and several residents of the village attempted to file a formal complaint with officials. Several unsuccessful attempts later, Pan and the others went to Beijing to seek legal assistance. There, they lodged an application for an audit by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and the Hebei environmental protection bureau.

At the end of 2010, the MEP ruled against the villagers, upholding the final approval of environmental evaluation results submitted by CAMS.

Pan and the other villagers filed a lawsuit with the Qiaoxi District court in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province. They hired Xia Jun, a Beijing-based environmental lawyer, to take their case. Xia said he never thought the villagers had a chance given the fact that they were going to go against the provincial government. But then Pan showed him the forged documents.

Xia said he examined each of the one hundred surveys and found that in addition to being faked, fifteen surveys used false identities, thirteen signatures used the names of former residents, and one identity was duplicated on two questionnaires. Not one of the villagers had actually put a pen to any of these papers themselves, Pan said.

Qiao Qi, a villager that saw his signature faked on one of the assessment forms, said the forged slip of paper had misstated his personal information. He only received a high school education, where the form stated he was a university graduate.

In a sudden turn of events, the provincial environmental protection bureau revoked the approval for the project just before the district court hearing in May 2011. The bureau said work was halted until the situation was rectified.

But neither CAMS nor the provincial environmental bureau received any further official scrutiny.

Villagers blamed CAMS for the falsification of their signatures. In January, a statement published on the MEP’s website blacklisted eighty-eight substandard environmental assessment agencies, including CAMS. The agency was downgraded and had its “business scope narrowed” by the MEP.

But according to the MEP statement, the punishment of CAMS had nothing to do with the complaints of the Panguanying villagers. The ministry said the blacklisting was based on a lack of personnel. The notice said: “There are not enough professionals at CAMS to meet the MEP’s qualification standards.”

Villagers continued to push for more punishment of CAMS, but the MEP then said that the responsibility lay with the project builder. In the case of Panguanying, the MEP said Zhejiang Weiming Environment Protection Co. was in charge of contracting the assessment to CAMS. However, Zhejiang Weiming, which is backed by the Qinghuangdao government, would also fail to receive any official reprimand, and instead passed the MEP’s verification check at the end of 2010, clearing a huge hurdle for plans to roll out an IPO.

Furious, the villagers in May 2012 attempted to file a lawsuit against the MEP over its approval of Zhejiang Weiming. One month later, they were told by the court that their case had been rejected, but no explanation was given.

Despite the outrage of the Panguanying villagers, agencies that use fraudulent methods are still hired to certify construction projects, making cases of forged petitions not so uncommon.

When public opinions were solicited in 2011 for the Sujiatuo garbage incinerator in Beijing’s Haidian District, the questionnaires officially showed “high support.” A statement on the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau showed that 91.4 percent of the 500 questionnaires showed support for the project.

But research by the Beijing Beagle Environment Institute found major discrepancies between the bureau’s conclusion and what residents said. Chen Liwen, one of the non-governmental organization’s researchers, said that all of the residents surveyed by his organization said they strongly opposed the project. Some residents also said that only those who agreed to the project were allowed to sign the questionnaires. They were offered gifts such as toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Caixin found that authorities in charge of evaluating major environmental projects commonly gave gifts in exchange for positive answers to questionnaires. Other strategies included barring those opposed to projects from meetings.

In Panguanying, CAMS continues to say that it posted a notice about the project on local bulletin boards for public review long before the project broke ground. But villager Zhang Mengru said the notice was published after work started.

Government-backed assessors have been known to fake public involvement by posting notices after a project has begun. In 2012, residents in Tianjin’s Binhai District protested against a new polycarbonate factory. When one protestor was asked if residents had been informed of the project, he replied that the evaluation had been conducted “in total secrecy.” The residents said no one saw notices before work started, but they did afterward.

While the consistent use of illegal practices by assessors has led to more public awareness of government abuses, a cottage industry of assessors has grown.

Hou Yizhong, former Communist Party head of the Zhengyi environmental protection bureau in Jiangsu province, wrote in an article in 2011 that said a complete industry chain has been formed to falsify environment assessment reports. The structure involved the project’s owner, assessment organization, and local governments.

Rural Life, Society