China’s history and reputation with environmental protection is far from positive.
However, in my experience in China over the past four years I’ve seen a number of examples of the next generation of Chinese starting to take action to start fixing some of the problems their parents’ generation have caused.
China’s youth will inevitably face these problems in a much more serious way than their parents. Compared to two decades ago, there is tremendous pressure from the outside world for China’s economic development to not come at the expense of the environment. But now, the pressure also seems to be coming from within China.
In many ways, China’s environmental problems become the world’s environmental problems. For example, China’s growing deserts affect communities across oceans and continents. At the same time, the world’s environmental problems affect China. Changing global atmospheres are causing glaciers to melt faster than they ever have.
In the end, we live in one world with one connected environment.
However, the world seems to point fingers at China telling them to clean up their act, without the same act being reciprocated from China. But on the ground in China, I see signs of reform. Even signs of hope. Recently, one came across my desk.
Friends of Nature, China’s oldest registered NGO approached me a few months back about making a short film about their battle with an environmental criminal in South China.
In the past, these battles were not so easy for NGOs to take part in. But now, a new amendment to a law is helping to even the tables.
The new amendment states:
“In instances where the public interest is threatened, such as environmental pollution or violations of consumers’ rights, relevant organs or social organizations may file suit at the People’s Courts.”
The effect of this amendment means NGOs in China can now sue private or state owned companies in a court of law. And Friends of Nature is one of the first to try.
Instead of writing open letters, protesting or creating public awareness campaigns, the NGO is taking a factory to court after they dumped 5,000 tons of chromium six into a reservoir outside a town. They are suing for human and environmental costs.
This chemical, made famous from Julia Roberts and Erin Brokovich has caused cancer rates in this small southern Chinese village to skyrocket. Cancer rates are up, fatality from cancer rates are up and cancer rates amongst youth are up — although a lot of the numbers seem to be elusive and debated.
When this happens in China, villages often become labeled “cancer villages.”
But a grassroots NGO is still extremely out weighed in a court of law compared to a factory with a budget. In fact, the NGO’s budget is next to nothing. Their lawyers, are probono. The research, is done by themselves. Collected evidence, also on their own initiative.
Much to the demise of the factory, the NGO has been making regular trips to the village to collect water samples, dirt samples, taking photographs and talking to villagers. The NGO expressed very serious fears about repercussions of their actions from the factory. They have been threatened physically and have been told to stay away.
While trying to keep out of harms way, they need to be on the scene. At the same time, they don’t want to jeopardize their case and are attempting to get the necessary information they need to make their case in court, without being harmed by factory thugs.
The equation became more interesting to me when I met the whistle blower who first started calling media and the NGO about what they knew.
When I met him, we were on the side of the road in a city about four hours East of Kunming. A black audi with tinted windows, whom ordinarily I might assume to be a politician rolled up. Both the NGO and my driver didn’t want to be seen with a foreigner in this place so I stayed in the car and watched as the man stepped out of his vehicle.
A short, bald man with a gold chain and sunglasses talked to my friend from the NGO about how to get into the cancer village and avoid the factories thugs. Funny enough, this man looked a bit like a hired thug. I wondered about his motivation behind his actions and asked my Chinese assistant to keep his ear out for details.
While I didn’t find out any concrete information, it did seem he had some personal reason for putting the factory in a bad light. It wasn’t out of a love for the environment, or from a hope to help the village — but something personal. Perhaps revenge? Perhaps economic gain? I’m not sure. But his purpose was certainly different than the NGOs, whose goal is to actual help this place and these people.
And this is how environmental reform in China is working today.
It takes a lot of ingredients in the pot, to make the right soup. A new law; a smart NGO; a lawyer willing to work for no money; an citizen with a shady motivation … maybe even a filmmaker looking to help spread the word … its a little different than reform in the West.
And right now, the law suit isn’t finished. But regardless of who wins or what the outcome is I do believe it is a win for China’s environment. It shows the government is comfortable giving more power to the people to help protect their own environment. The case shows ordinary Chinese citizens care about their environment. And it shows that change can happen.
And this is “hopeful.”