MAC/20: Mines and Communities

China grasps for green

Published by MAC on 2006-01-27


China grasps for green

27th January 2006

For once, activists and the Party seem to have the same goal: to tackle China's appalling environmental record. But can they get along enough to do some good?

The Ottawa Citizen

22nd January 2006

Is China going green? The idea seems laughable, coming after an 80-kilometre-long slick of benzene on the Songhua River poisoned the water supply for about 12 million people in northeastern China last fall. But a growing number of observers say a green revolution is sweeping the country, with grassroots groups dragging polluters to court, consumers opting for organic produce, and activists staging defiant, even violent, protests.

In April, hundreds of villagers battled riot police outside Dongyang in Zhejiang province, demanding that officials close nearby chemical plants that had poisoned their water and crops. The factories were closed indefinitely.

Three months later, as many as 15,000 protesters faced off against riot police in the city of Xinchang in a successful bid to shut down a polluting pharmaceutical plant, according to the New York Times. "People are taking a stand," says internationally renowned Chinese dissident and environmentalist Dai Qing, who was jailed after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and who led the charge against the mammoth Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project upon her release. Chinese people are "shocked by . . . how bad the situation is in China," she explains in an e-mail from Beijing.

Ms. Dai has won an array of international awards for her work, including the prestigious U.S.-based Goldman Prize, considered the "Oscar" of environmentalism.

She says green activism has been gaining momentum in the past 10 years as increased contact with the West through avenues such as the Internet shows Chinese citizens "how well the environment has been protected in other countries."

That awareness has become more widespread as the appalling environmental toll of China's boom economy becomes apparent. Already three-quarters of the rivers running through Chinese cities are toxic; seven of the world's 10 most polluted cities are in China. Smog kills an estimated 400,000 people a year, according to the International Energy Association. "China is facing the most severe environmental degradation in history," says Zhao Ang, an activist with Green Earth Volunteers, a Beijing-based environmental group, in an e-mail interview.

"The public is beginning to realize the importance of environmental protection," adds Mr. Zhao, who comes from Shanxi province, the biggest coal-mining region in the country.

The country's first green nongovernmental organization, Friends of Nature, was registered in 1994; since then, more than 2,000 officially recognized activist groups have sprung up across the country, according to the Boston Globe. That doesn't include an untold number of other groups operating without official government sanction.

And many of these groups are not pulling their punches: They are launching lawsuits against factories, fighting officials over the building of large dams and other megaprojects, and harassing bureaucrats who refuse to press charges against polluters.

Mr. Zhao's group, for example, is pushing the notoriously secretive central government to allow public hearings as part of its fledgling environmental impact assessment process. Other groups provide legal aid to pollution victims, campaign to protect wetlands and endangered species, or push for better media coverage.

Concern for the environment is now top-of-mind for China's growing middle class, observers agree.

For example, consumers are opting in increasing numbers for certified organic or green produce, says Arlyle Waring, a Montreal-based consultant with 20 years' experience in China.

"You can even go into Shanghai and find a store with 'green' baby products," says Ms. Waring.

"Greenspeak" terms such as biodiversity and GM foods are now common, notes a YaleGlobal Online study, pointing to an increase in environmental reporting from 1994 to 1999.

And that coverage is generally better than in the West, says Ms. Waring: "Newspapers are much more detailed about what is happening in their water and their air than we ever see here," she says.

So does China now have a free-wheeling, western-style environmental movement?

Not by a long shot, says Vaclav Smil, a University of Winnipeg professor who has written extensively on China.

While the number of activist groups has grown exponentially, most focus on specific local causes – rogue factories, or corrupt officials, for example.

The Communist Party would not allow a nationwide movement that could threaten its "fierce control," he says.

But in recent years party officials have tolerated, even encouraged, many local environmental groups.

"Authorities have more tolerance of environmental protection activities . . . than of human rights and religious" protests, explains Ms. Dai. It serves the government's purpose to give environmental groups some leeway, Mr. Smil says: "The air stinks and everything is polluted. The party bosses see that, too . . . they genuinely do want to improve the environment."

He adds that, while party brass still prizes economic growth, population control and public security over all else, Chinese leaders take their country's environmental crisis seriously.

In fact, he argues, "top Chinese leadership is much better informed about the true state of the environment than (Canada's) leadership." With its economy growing by a whopping nine per cent a year, China has to act fast to find alternatives to increasingly costly fossil fuels.

Then there's the economic cost of China's environmental nightmare, which slices 10 per cent off the country's Gross Domestic Product every year, the federal State Environmental Protection Administration has said. Grassroots groups not only help the central government crack down on lax or corrupt local officials who flout federal standards, but they also help it "sell" environmentalism, notes the China Business Review.

The government "understands the need to push through some unpopular measures – realistic energy and water pricing in particular," notes the magazine, which is published by the U.S.-China Business Council. "Green non-governmental organizations make more convincing propagandists than government slogan writers."

The Chinese government is also rushing to go green, or at least to appear to be, after nailing its bid for the 2008 Olympics by promising the most environmentally friendly games ever.

China will spend $14 billion preparing for the games in Beijing, building energy-efficient housing, converting the capital to cleaner fuel such as natural gas rather than coal, and improving water treatment. Other national programs are equally ambitious: From 2001 to 2005, $97.4 billion was earmarked for environmental projects, the Review notes.

Last February, the government passed a law requiring utility operators to buy some of their electricity from renewable sources, such as wind or solar plants; by 2020 it wants 10 per cent of China's energy to come from renewable sources.

And by 2007, auto-emissions standards will exceed the American norm, according to the New York Times.

"China already has some fantastic legislation that's even stricter than ours," says Ms. Waring. "The problem is enforcement."

For example, in December 2004, the State Environmental Protection Administration took the unprecedented step of closing 32 coal-power plants for breaking its air-emissions standards. Within weeks, most were running again, having paid a $28,000 fine; most took no steps to conform to the rules, the New York Times reported.

Such failures put the government's environmental commitment in question, especially in light of its pursuit of prosperity, critics say. By 2025, China will be spewing 20 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases, according to the New York Times. Annual car sales, it says, have skyrocketed as much as 37 per cent in recent years, and energy use has grown by about 15 per cent a year.

The central government continues to censor potentially embarrassing environmental news: After the chemical-plant explosion poisoned Harbin's water supply, Beijing suppressed news of the accident for 10 days.

Activists are still punished: In October, police arrested six members of the advocacy group Green Watch after they tried to open a bank account for the as-yet unregistered group, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.

Ms. Dai's writings, including Yangtze! Yangtze!, a scathing critique of the Three Gorges Dam project, remain banned in China, 17 years after the party ruled that her work contributed to the Tiananmen Square uprising. Communist Party brass will brook no criticism of any project it endorses, no matter what the cost to the environment, Ms. Dai says.

The Three Gorges Dam, for example, "is a pet project of China's top leaders, and those who voice their opposition to it run the risk of being severely punished," she says.

The dam, to be completed by 2009, will force the relocation of almost two million people, says Canada's environmental group Probe International. China is planning even more mega-projects to harvest hydroelectric power – projects so vast they will affect tens of millions of people, Ms. Dai says.

But partly thanks to the explosion of Chinese environmental groups, public awareness is higher now than it has ever been, she adds. Nowadays, such megaprojects are "likely to trigger revolutions," Ms. Dai predicts. Ms. Waring agrees that Chinese people have become far more assertive about such issues.

"It's a new era in China, where people are feeling they have to stand up and make their views known."


Sidebar: Activists now scaling Great Wall of silence

by Kelly Patterson, The Ottawa Citizen

22nd January 2006

For decades, Chinese citizens concerned about the environment have been cut off from the outside world by a Great Wall of silence – not only because of government censorship, but also simply because of language.

"English is the lingua franca of the environmental movement around the world," explains Patricia Adams, executive director of the Toronto-based watchdog group Probe International, which for 20 years has led a high-profile campaign against China's Three Gorges mega-dam and similar projects.

Chinese activists struggle to get the word out about environmental crises, and many can't read about breakthroughs in environmental law or science elsewhere in the world, notes Ms. Adams, whose organization has for many years helped translate and publish Chinese news and books.

Now Probe is trying to break down the linguistic barriers by launching a language-training program especially for Chinese environmentalists. This fall, 16 participants took the course, co-ordinated in Beijing by renowned Chinese environmentalist Dai Qing, and funded by the U.S.-based Open Society Institute.

In the spring, four of the students – most of them journalists or activists in environmental groups – will come to North America to work with organizations such as the U.S.-based International Rivers Network, doing research, exchanging ideas and practising their English. Zhao Ang, a member of the Beijing group Green Earth Volunteers, spent five nights a week studying English through the program, and still goes once a week to hone his skills.

In an e-mail from Beijing, he said he considers good English an essential tool in his campaign for "public participation in environmental decision-making."

Programs that address the linguistic divide are critical to Chinese activists, says Ms. Dai, noting that China's burgeoning environmental movement owes much to the support and financial aid of international organizations.

A handful of international environmental organizations, including Probe and the World Wildlife Fund, have been active in China for about 20 years; now even radical groups such as Greenpeace are active in the country. Ms. Adams notes that Chinese groups aren't the only ones to benefit from efforts to break the language barrier: Much of the environmental research done in China is still not accessible to western scientists.

For example, some of the world's top hydrologists are Chinese, and several have done groundbreaking work on the environmental effects of river diversion and dams, she says.

"There's a great body of scientific knowledge in China that we don't have access to right now," Ms. Adams notes.


Silicosis Victim Wins Record Compensation after Three-year Fight for Justice

by China Labour Bulletin Press Release No. 11

27th January 2006

A jewellery worker in Guangdong who contracted life-threatening silicosis because of unsafe working conditions has been awarded record compensation of nearly half a million yuan, to be paid by his former employer, a Hong Kong jewellery manufacturer.

Feng Xingzhong, a 33-year-old Sichuan native, won his case on appeal in the Huidong County People's Court on 22 December 2005, after a three-year legal battle and amid a steady deterioration of his health. The court awarded Feng a total of 463,761 yuan, in a compensation package that included a lump sum payment of 219,000 yuan to cover Feng's long-term medical treatment (houxu zhiliao fei). With proper long-term treatment silicosis victims can survive for many years, but among 100 or so silicosis cases monitored by CLB, Feng's case is the first time that a court has awarded compensation on this vital count. Without regular long-term treatment, silicosis is a fatal disease.

China Labour Bulletin applauds the court's decision and we hope it will set a precedent for future compensation cases involving occupational illnesses in the Guangdong jewellery industry. While Feng and several other silicosis-afflicted jewellery workers have been awarded substantial amounts of compensation by the courts over the past year, most of the other 100 or so workers in Guangdong identified by Hong Kong labour rights groups who have contracted this deadly occupational disease have received little or no compensation. Moreover, these cases are the tip of the iceberg: according to the PRC Ministry of Health, around 440,000 Chinese workers currently have silicosis, but in April 2005 the ministry's own experts estimated that the real figure was ten times higher.

Silicosis is caused by prolonged exposure to airborne crystalline silica dust, a workplace toxin that drastically reduces the lungs' ability to extract oxygen from the air. A form of pneumoconiosis, the disease generally takes about eight years to develop before any symptoms appear, and by then it is basically incurable. The other main form of pneumoconiosis is "black lung disease," which typically afflicts coal miners. High levels of silica dust are found in numerous occupations including stone-working, tunneling, sandblasting and the glass, ceramics and fiberglass industries, and all those employed in these areas are at risk of developing silicosis unless appropriate health and safety regimes are rigorously observed.

For further information on the silicosis epidemic among Guangdong jewellery workers and their continuing legal battle for compensation, please see CLB's recently released research report, "Deadly Dust" - available here: http://www.clb.org.hk/fs/view/downloadables/Deadly_Dust_Dec2005.pdf.



Background to the case of jewellery worker Feng Xingzhong

Feng started working as a stonecutter and polisher at the Gaoya Jewellery Manufacturing Plant (Gaoya Shoushi Zhipinchang) in Huidong County, Huizhou City in 1993. The factory was owned by the Hong Kong company Ko Ngar Gems Factory Ltd. In May 2000, following health check-ups on all employees, the factory manager informed Feng that he had contracted tuberculosis, which is infectious, and told him to take sick leave and get medical treatment. Feng received the sum of 2,000 yuan from the company and returned to his hometown to seek treatment. While at home, his health deteriorated steadily. In September 2002, the Sichuan provincial health authorities confirmed that he was suffering from second-degree silicosis.

On 17 November 2002, Feng Xingzhong lodged a compensation claim with the Labour Dispute Arbitration Committee (LDAC) of Haifeng County, where the company had by that time relocated under the new name of Gaoyi Gems Company Ltd. Although less than 60 days had elapsed since Feng's confirmed diagnosis of silicosis in September that year, the Haifeng LDAC nonetheless rejected his arbitration application on the grounds that he had "exceeded the [60-day] time limit for applying". Feng then pursued a compensation lawsuit against Gaoyi Gems, first at the Haifeng County Court and later (on appeal) at the Shanwei Municipal Intermediate Court. Both courts dismissed Feng's case on the false grounds that there had been "no employment relationship" between him and the Gaoyi Gems Factory. On 24 January 2005, Feng lodged a second application for arbitration of his compensation claim, this time at the Huidong County LDAC and naming the Gaoya Jewellery Manufacturing Plant (the factory's original name and location) as the respondent.

On 20 May 2005, the Huidong LDAC instructed Gaoya Jewellery to pay Feng Xingzhong a lump sum work-related disability award of 19,350 yuan, plus 12,900 yuan in reimbursement for medical fees, and also a disabled person's allowance of 806.25 yuan per month for the rest of his life. LDAC rulings are non-binding in nature, however, and since Gaoya Jewellery had already relocated its production facilities to another jurisdiction, there was virtually no chance that this ruling would be enforced. On 24 June, therefore, Feng brought a civil lawsuit against Gaoya Jewellery in the Huidong County Court and the hearing took place on 27 September 2005. On 22 December, the court awarded him the above-mentioned total of 463,761 yuan in compensation. It is unclear whether the Ko Ngar Gems Factory Ltd has lodged an appeal against the court's compensation award.

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