Problems of polluted water, land, and air are crucial to China’s leaders and environmental rights defenders alike. Both feel they have the nation’s best interests at heart in addressing them. President Hu Jintao’s theories of “scientific development” and “harmonious society” converge closely in discussions about nature, and his address at the party congress this past October was peppered with references to “sustainable development” and the environment. Meanwhile, Chinese who strive to protect the environment are observing with alarm their country’s ecological decline. And like activists elsewhere, they are motivated by universal values—that individuals have the right to drink clean water, breathe unpolluted air, and live and work on land that is being protected.

The current Chinese leadership appears mindful of environmental issues and citizens’ views on them, at least compared to their predecessors. Besides Hu’s public utterances, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has won praise for his high-profile support of environmental protection. The head of the State Environmental Protection Agency, Pan Yue, who took over the post after toxic benzene contaminated the Songhua River in northeastern China in 2005, has said that public participation is needed to tackle environmental problems. So on the surface, Chinese leaders seem to encourage a more politically open dialogue on the topic.

But nature and public health are still readily sacrificed in favor of blistering economic development. At the party congress, Hu also laid out ambitions to quadruple per capita GDP goals (set in 2000) by the year 2020, which will take a huge ecological toll even under the most protective conditions. While China’s economy booms, the numbers of citizens and protests emerging in defense of the environment swell right alongside it. The government’s own statistics show that water or air pollution factors into as many as half of the country’s “mass incidents,” a gauge of popular dissent. Weighing the costs of ecological damage and, no doubt, greater social unrest, the Ministry of Public Security ranks pollution among the top threats to China’s peace and stability.

What They Fight For

China’s path of development makes environmental rights advocacy a life-and-death issue. Modern industrialization has been fueled by burning coal, the use and discharge of dangerous chemicals, and massive development projects that leave toxic fallout in their wake. The resultant pollution has taken the lives of countless numbers of Chinese who have succumbed to cancer and other fatal diseases. The major cause of death in China is heart disease linked directly to air pollution. This all means that environmental rights defenders are engaged in a dual battle for the environment and public health.

Plans for dam construction and dam sites themselves have become magnets for rights activism. This comes with historical rationale; China has experienced several disastrous floods following dam and levy collapses, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced. Besides flooding, environmental damage from dams is felt sharply through the practice of dynamiting and the contamination of air and water supplies with hazardous materials that are discarded and discharged during construction. Today, more than half of the world’s large-scale dam projects are in China, reflecting the ambitious quest to power the country’s economy. Often led by some of the poorest and most vulnerable Chinese citizens, extended and occasionally violent protests have broken out over the erection of dams.

Among China’s development projects, the massive Three Gorges Dam, which is slated for completion in 2009, has been the main target of citizen unrest. No matter how fierce their opposition, most people affected have submitted to relocation. Chinese officials are unwilling to talk much about rights in this case. To the contrary, the value of the Three Gorges Dam project to social stability can be seen by a number of detentions, arrests, and prison sentences given out to some who have protested it. Officials have been more pliant in dealing with citizen unrest over other dam projects. For example, plans for a series of dams along the Nu River in Yunnan Province were scrapped in 2004 after a vast contingent of local community members and environmental activists, including several Chinese and foreign NGOs, fought the project on environmental grounds. Wen Jiabao’s intervention to help suspend the project received a great deal of extensive publicity, but the government line seemed as concerned about stomping out the controversy as protecting the environment.

The Legal Obstacle Course

Disputes over environmental rights in China will only become more serious, and they are increasingly being settled by legal and criminal justice institutions. Common criminal charges for defending such rights are “disrupting social order,” usually by gathering a crowd for a protest, and “disrupting official business” through hindering a development project or commercial enterprise. In enforcing the law, local party secretaries above all have a mandate to maintain order in society, and their almost total control over police and courts helps them implement this mandate liberally. More often than ever, those defending the environment are ending up detained by the police or imprisoned by a Chinese court.

In this scenario, of major importance is how officials provide—or restrict—political space for rights defenders who report on activities that wreak havoc on the country’s environment. With the public blessing of national leaders, Chinese environmental rights defenders can enjoy some freedom to write opinion pieces, hold forums, and organize groups. This kind of open activism is unheard of for Chinese activists involved with overtly (or obliquely) political or religious causes. Chinese authorities may be more accepting of environmental rights work because they do not perceive the field’s activists to be “democracy seekers” with political goals.

But despite a degree of free rein, there are limits to public expression for environmental rights defenders. They can meander into murky ground where the grip of the public security police tightens quickly or the appropriate legal responses to rights movements are unclear. In part, this is because organized, non-governmental environmental advocacy in China is relatively new, and regulations on handling mass protests so often used in these campaigns are not always applied consistently. Most citizens also are not well aware of environmental laws that can help protect them or are frustrated by the legal process they must go through to defend their rights. In addition, even sympathetic authorities may still be figuring out how to monitor environmental activism or punish rights defenders who they feel run afoul of the law.

It is not unusual for officials, particularly on the local level, to stifle environmental advocacy not by sorting out legal ambiguities but instead by hiding shady deals that they have cut with companies whose activities harm the environment. Threatened by rights campaigns that can reach the highest rungs of government in Beijing, local officials may find that the easiest way to keep their positions is to harass or otherwise derail those fighting for environmental rights, which often allows the ecological damage to continue.

Nature’s Defense in the Courts

Compared to risks assumed by common citizen activists, who tend to lack political leverage and legal knowledge, some Chinese lawyers have had better luck defending victims of environmental damage. They are seen by authorities, especially in Beijing, as go-betweens who can help the government enforce laws and maintain social order. Lawyers have plenty of raw materials to work with; China has ample environmental laws on the books, and criminal penalties for polluters were enacted in 1997. If a company is found guilty of breaking environmental laws, a heavy fine or factory closure is not only a feather in the government’s cap but, as importantly, can halt protests over a controversial problem.

The Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV) is the only registered organization in China that specifically provides legal services for those seeking justice from the effects of pollution. The center mostly assists farmers whose livelihoods have been lost. Wang Canfa, a law professor, directs the Beijing-based center and is perhaps the best-known environmental attorney in China. Among many of CLAPV’s victories, one of its associates recently won a lawsuit against a company in Fujian Province which compensated over 1,600 villagers for toxic pollution of their water supply and land. Though still quite new to China, legal work of this sort supplements increasing government action to issue heavy fines and close down thousands of polluters all over the country.

Instead of providing justice, however, court verdicts that dole out compensation can come at a price to citizen rights. Such a system often only placates environmental victims, many of whom receive woefully inadequate compensation, and can undermine their ability to learn about their rights. One result is a perpetual reliance on legal and criminal justice officials to come to their defense—even when these officials may be colluding with the very institutions and companies that are causing environmental damage. These kinds of limitations are a major obstacle to rights advocacy, given the number of citizens with grievances about environmental problems in China.

Rights to Greener Pastures

The pitfalls in defending environmental rights reveal cracks in China’s legal and criminal justice systems—most notably, the failures to respect rights to free expression and health and uphold anti-pollution and anti-corruption laws. As in other rights areas, safeguarding environmental rights has complex dimensions and far-flung consequences. This may be especially true in China, where ecological assault affects a huge population and landmass as well as people and the environment worldwide. Two-thirds of the country is prone to acid rain showers, and across the Pacific Ocean, as much as 25 percent of the air pollution in Los Angeles originates in China.

Effective environmental rights work cannot be done without solid legal protections for rights defenders at all levels of society—and not only those able to navigate the labyrinth of Chinese laws or advocate with the consent of powerful officials. Facing so many catastrophic natural crises, China’s leaders must support a rule of law that protects the voices of environmental rights defenders in order to achieve the ideal of a “harmonious society.” At this point, it’s the most effective route China can take to defend an environment that has already suffered rampant degradation.

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