China Declared War Against Pollution, But Fights Its Own Climate Activists

By Brian Lombardozzi
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Despite professions of environmental responsibility, China continues to flout its promises.

Today it seems commonplace that those currently occupying the halls of power are quick to dismiss climate activist’s call’s for action. 

On the face of it, China’s leadership seems to stand out, from Premier Li Keqiang declaring a “war against pollution” in 2014, to President Xi Jinping’s committing China to the Paris Accords, spending big on clean energy, announcing curbs on single-use plastics, and making moves to tackle air pollution

However, it seems that all this action is from the top down, as being a climate activist in China leads to persecution by the authorities.

Let’s be clear, China needed to act. 

At one-point China-made pollution caused an extra day per year of ozone smog in Los Angeles. 

We’ve also been pointing out for years that China’s ineffective enforcement of weak pollution-control standards, its failure to use adequate pollution-prevention measures, and the resulting high levels of pollution is a serious issue with effects beyond China’s borders.

Even today, China’s air and water pollution standards applicable to the steel industry are far less stringent than in the United States.

Unfortunately, it seems that Chinese civil society’s role in fighting pollution is greatly restricted, and that there is little room for public discourse on pollution control, let alone any open criticism of government policy.

A few years ago we pointed out the issues villagers in Haining, Zhejiang Province faced in 2011 when they staged a protest of a nearby Jinko Solar factory that was found to be “discharging excessive pollutants” after the death of a large number of fish in the local water supply and were met with riot police, beat up and arrested.

Then there is the story of how Xianghe Chemical Factory poisoned a local community…

Located in Hunan Province along the Liuyang River, Xianghe Chemical Factory produced extremely toxic metals like cadmium and indium, both used in the production and manufacture of solar panels. But two years after the factory was shuttered, thousands of villagers in Hunan were “still living in the shadow of one of the worst pollution scandals on the mainland,” reported the South China Morning Post. “The factory had been illegally producing indium since 2004 without necessary safety facilities for dealing with the toxic waste, which was discharged, untreated, into the Liuyang River.”

Three out of four villagers suffer from excessive levels of cadmium in their blood. Cadmium damages the kidneys and the liver and, found the newspaper, “can cause cancer and failure of the nervous system and lungs… The villagers are struggling to cope with their illnesses without proper medical support, let alone fair compensation.”

Clinical autopsies on part-time Xianghe Chemical Factory workers showed “they died of brain damage and multiple organ failure, including their lungs, liver and kidneys, caused by acute cadmium poisoning.”

While we’ve seen the public commitments China’s leaders have made to address its pollution problem, Bloomberg News reported on the issues citizen activists face when trying to combat pollution in the City of Wuhan. Unfortunately, little room remains for public discourse and open criticism of government policy in China.

Residents of Wuhan protesting an incinerator plant they feared was causing illness in the community found themselves frustrated by local police and local officials. When they tried to get the attention of the central government, residents found Wuhan officials blocked their attempts to reach Beijing, monitoring when they book tickets to travel to the capital.

Last year, in September, five residents made it to Beijing to petition officials. According to the article, “[t]hey were met at the train station by about a dozen young men dressed in black, who said they’d arranged for them to see some officials to discuss the issue and ushered them into three cars. Instead of taking them to a government building in the capital, the cars drove them all the way back to Wuhan, a journey of more than 10 hours.”

The eight activists interviewed for the article said, “it’s becoming increasingly common for non-governmental organizations, both domestic and foreign, to avoid sensitive topics altogether and to practice self-censorship so that they can keep operating in China.”

To illustrate the point to which NGOs are affected by the limits on civil society in China, the article uses the example of Greenpeace, the biggest international environmental NGO operating in China. In China Greenpeace ditches its signature model of organizing non-violent protests and instead cooperates with the government through different channels including providing policy feedback. Meanwhile, the organization is still waiting for official registration in China years after applying.

The space for public input on the steps China is taking to address its pollution problems is extremely limited. This is why it is up to those of us who live in countries that do provide a greater role for civil society to have a public discourse on these issues and be openly critical of our own governments as well as others. We need to remain vigilant about not just what the powers that be say is occurring, but how those actions play out in the communities that are on the front lines, at home and abroad. 

Economy-wide the United States is the largest importer of embodied carbon, followed by European nations like Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain. Conversely, China is the largest exporter, followed by India, Russia and Korea. Countries party to the Paris Agreement are held responsible only for the emissions produced within their own borders. 

When major economies like the United States regulate their domestic emissions, domestic producers incur costs to comply with them. And some producers choose to offshore to areas with lesser – or nonexistent, or unenforced – regulations to avoid incurring those costs. This is among the reasons that, while the United States and the European Union have passed a series of air quality legislation regulating emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, total global emissions for both have risen.

 If you consider the issue of production fleeing regulation important — particularly of heavily traded and carbon-intensive industries, known as emissions-intensive-trade-exposed goods — you’ll notice the Paris Agreement creates a carbon emission accounting loophole.

One way to help close that loophole is to work to assure we consume less from countries where environmental regulations go unforced or are nonexistent. An easy way to do that is by supporting domestic manufacturing, which is all the more important as the Chinese government actively works against its citizens’ efforts to affect change.