Environmental pawns in a game of power

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am

Being an environmentalist may be a respectable job in most countries but it doesn't really pay on the mainland. The Wuxi Intermediate People's Court has overturned an appeal by celebrated green activist Wu Lihong and upheld a three-year jail sentence for extortion and fraud against him. Wu became internationally famous for his efforts to clean up Tai Lake, the country's third-largest freshwater lake that was the site of a massive algal bloom which cut off drinking water supply to millions of people this year.

Wu's continued incarceration does not augur well for the mainland's avowed efforts to clean up the environment and pursue sustainable industrial growth. It was part of a continued crackdown against environmentalists and green groups who work outside the system. He was, after all, recognised by the government as an 'outstanding environmentalist' in 2005, yet his efforts exposing untreated chemical waste being dumped into the lake provoked local officials to move against him.

The dissidents of old questioned the political system; their place has been taken up by environmentalists. Their work has become increasingly politicised, because environmental degradation now threatens the very economic miracle that has brought recognition and legitimacy to the central government and its one-party rule.

Tens of millions of people have been lifted from abject poverty thanks to the mainland's double-digit growth over two decades. But the health of millions is now being imperiled by polluted air and contaminated water and food. The country has the distinction of having 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities, while 14,000 new cars hit the roads every day.

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency reported this year that China has overtaken the United States as the world's top producer of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas. There were reportedly more than 51,000 protests related to pollution in 2005; the number has probably risen since.

The costs of pollution and environmental damage now equal between 8 per cent and 12 per cent of the country's annual gross domestic product. Environmentalism, therefore, goes straight to the heart of the mainland's political system and the halo of success and legitimacy on which it is based.

The central government recognises this and has made it a matter of state policy to promote environmentally friendly industrial practices. It can even be argued that, at the broadest policy level, grass-root environmentalists and top leaders in Beijing are in basic agreement. Beijing, after all, has budgeted more than 256 billion yuan for a gigantic cleanup of 11 pollution-plagued water sources by 2010, including Tai Lake. Official recognition of this problem is in no small part due to Wu's tireless campaigning.

But what Beijing orders is not always followed by local governments. Investigative journalists, local media and various green non-governmental organisations may periodically be allowed to expose polluting factories and local officials in collusion with them. However, activists and reporters have little protection once local authorities move against them. They can be beaten, arrested, charged, tried and imprisoned with impunity. In these cases, they become pawns in a ruthless game of power and vested interests.

It is clear that administrative measures by Beijing may not always work against local authorities and factory owners. It is especially the case with environmental protection. Clearly, they have to be offered greater incentives, preferably economic ones.

Activists and journalists should be able to operate more freely to effectively monitor and expose polluters. And the justice system should be strengthened to allow it to operate more independently to protect them. This is, however, something that Beijing is most reluctant to allow - because it means introducing political reforms.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post