In the quest to clean up the mainland, environmental lawyer Wang Canfa may have the hardest job - taking the government to court to enforce its own laws. Professor Wang is the director of Beijing's Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims. The non-governmental organisation, which runs the nation's only free hotline offering legal advice, receives about 10 calls a day. 'Our job is not to cause trouble but to support the rule of law,' Professor Wang said in his office at Beijing's China University of Politics and Law. Although officials regularly declare environmental protection a top priority, Professor Wang's job is not as simple as it seems. There are about 140 central government regulations and 1,020 provincial and municipal rules. 'The laws are very rarely followed,' said Professor Wang, who leads seven lawyers and dozens of student volunteers. A United Nations Development Programme report said while China's laws were 'impressive' in quantity, many were contradictory. Another problem is the lack of environmental law professionals. While there are around 40,000 environmental officials and more than 110,000 lawyers, there are only a handful of environmental law specialists. Corruption is the root of the problem. 'Local protectionism is the crucial reason for environmental pollution,' a Xinhua headline said. Local courts and environmental bureaus survive on the taxes and bribes of the industries they monitor. Victims lucky enough to be represented by Professor Wang's centre are not guaranteed justice. He says the centre must present overwhelming evidence by hiring an army of expert witnesses to testify in court - and the judge must first accept the case. The media's role is crucial. 'If the media does not report the case, the local government is not afraid to make a corrupt decision,' Professor Wang said. The average cost of a case is around 70,000 yuan (HK$66,000). With a budget funded entirely by foreign grants, the centre can only take a handful of cases a year. Despite the challenges, there have been victories. The centre won a case in 2001 where 97 fish farmers in Jiangsu sued an upstream factory in Shandong province for releasing pollution that killed their fish. A Jiangsu court made the factory pay damages of around 5.6 million yuan. However, for every success there are defeats. In May 2000, after residents in Yantai, Shandong, protested over a toxic gas release by a local chemical factory, three were charged with 'threatening social stability'. When the centre's lawyers, accompanied by journalists, went to the scene, authorities escorted the group to the first train back to Beijing. The three citizens remain in jail. Experts say the government is trying to improve the system. 'The central government is adopting measures to counter the local protectionism problem,' said Zhang Hongjun, a consultant with international law firm Beveridge & Diamond and former legislative office director of a National People's Congress committee dealing with the environment. The State Council is establishing a special team with super powers to go after polluters. The State Environmental Protection Administration now reviews, but does not have the power to approve, every provincial environmental bureau director appointed by the provincial governor. The central government is also simplifying regulations such as using a polluter-pays fining system and holding public hearings on proposed rules. Experts admit it will take years for a true environmental law culture to develop. Until then, lawyers such as Professor Wang's team are the only hope for environmental justice. Fortunately for the nation, it is a responsibility they are proud to accept. As Professor Wang told one hotline caller: 'Don't let the government pressure you. It's the law, we will find a way to take them to court.'