Thursday, January 05, 2006


The people of China have figured it out.

Now if only government and business leaders could.

According to a study released by the China Environmental Culture Promotion Association 79.4% of Chinese surveyed approved of putting environmental protection ahead of economic growth.

Carried out like a Gallup poll, the survey covered 3,777 people in the 18-64 age bracket in eight cities, five towns and seven villages. All have lived in local areas for more than two years.

"The survey shows the public feel the urgency of environmental problems. That's a very encouraging development," an official with the association told Xinhua.

The respondents rank air pollution caused by industrial pollution as their top environmental concern, followed by garbage treatment and sewage treatment.

The public recommends two approaches to addressing environmental problems according to the survey: rigid law enforcement and more vigorous publicity efforts.

The Chinese people have expressed themselves in ways other then a simple survey.

There have been protests and violent uprisings.

In one recent incident, villagers in Zhejiang province grew so exasperated by contamination from nearby chemical plants that they overturned and smashed dozens of vehicles and beat up police officers who arrived to quell what was essentially an environmental riot. "We had to do it. We can't grow our vegetables here anymore," said Li Sanye, a 60-year-old farmer. "Young women are giving birth to stillborn babies."

A snap shot look at China’s environmental problems tells a lot.

--BAD AIR: China is the world's second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, after the United States. Two-thirds of its cities have poor-quality air, often due to coal dust from power plants. Auto exhaust is also a factor, and it will get worse: China expects to have 140 million automobiles plying its roads by 2020, seven times more than it has today.

--BAD WATER: More than 30,000 children die each year in China from diarrhea that's due to contaminated water. Of China's seven biggest rivers, only the Pearl and the Yangtze are rated good in terms of water quality; the others are rated poor or dangerous. Forty percent of the raw sewage in the boom industrial city of Shenzhen, which has 10 million people, is flushed directly into city waterways.

According to the Environmental News Service (ENN), “Across China, entire rivers run foul or have dried up altogether. Nearly a third of cities don't treat their sewage, flushing it into waterways. Some 300 million of China's 1.3 billion people drink water that is too contaminated to be consumed safely. In rural China, sooty air depresses crop yields, and desert quickly encroaches on grasslands to the west. Filth and grime cover all but a few corners of the country.”

Pan Yue, a vice minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration told Der Spiegel not long ago, "Acid rain is falling on one-third of the Chinese territory (and) half the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless," Pan went on. "One-third of the urban population is breathing polluted air. ... Finally, five of the 10 most polluted cities worldwide are in China."

Recognizing that there is a problem (and that the problem can lead to unrest) the central government has begun to talk about environmental protection and has taken some action. It's enacting fuel-efficiency requirements for cars and shutting down mammoth dam-building and other projects.

President Hu Jintao has urged local officials to seek sustainable "green" development. But he's offered no acknowledgment that environmental constraints may hinder his goal of expanding China's economy fourfold by 2020.

By some accounts, on paper China now has world-class laws on environmental protection.

However, those laws don’t mean much when provincial and local officials, feeling the pressure for economic growth, shield polluters and ignore environmental laws.

"The policies from the top are not carried out at the bottom," charged Niu Yuchang, a peasant organizer in Beijing who hears many environmental complaints. "The (local) officials care only about development. They don't care about water or air pollution."

Most of China's cities have a local environmental-protection bureau, but powerful city officials sometimes bully the civil servants who run them.

"It is so embarrassing that some of them even have to write anonymous letters to us to denounce local environmental problems," said Wang Jirong, the vice minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), a national watchdog that some consider toothless.

In fact, SEPA lacks both funds to carry out its own programs and administrative power to enforce its regulations. In the absence of adequate funding, it is forced to rely on foreign donations and foreign investments for many of its programs. Even its main environmental outreach and educational offices are located in the Sino-Japanese Friendship Centre for Environmental Protection, a building donated to SEPA by the Japanese government.

And it isn't easy to be an environmentalist in China. The grassroots environmental movement is still hampered by restrictive laws and government surveillance of organizing activities, especially at the provincial level.

The environmental movement in China received a setback in late October of 2005 with the arrest of Hangzhou activist Tan Kai, founder of the monitoring group Green Watch. Kai and five other members of the group were brought in for questioning after opening a bank account for the not-yet-registered organization, according to the New York-based organization Human Rights in China.

On November 11, 2005 Hongzhou City Administration of Civil Affairs published a notice banning the organization.

Tai was eventually charged with "Disclosing State Secrets." But only recently, did his family receive official notification of his arrest. The family and many supporters say the charges are a sham.

Because the case involves "state secrets," his father Tan Xiaolong had to request permission from the Hangzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau for legal representation for his son. The request was denied. In response to the rejection, Tan Xiaolong has applied for a review of the decision from the Bureau. At present, he and the attorneys are still not allowed to visit Tan Kai.

The Epoch Times reports that after the disastrous Songari River pollution incident, caused by the explosion of a chemical processing plant in Jilin Province in November, members of the organization wrote a letter to the National People's Congress requesting acknowledgement of the organization, and the release of its founder Tan Kai.

On November 15, "Green Watch" and several of its members received two documents from the government: "Decision Banning Illegal Non-Government Organization - Hongzhou City Government Administration Civil Affairs Office" and a "Notice of Fine." Ren Weiren and Gao Haibing refused to acknowledge the fine or to sign the document.

"Green Watch" was founded by six Zhejiang residents, including Tan Kai and Lai Jin Biao, after a water pollution “incident” occurred in Huashui Town, Dongyang City, Zhejiang Province. Sources: Epoch Times, World Watch Institute, Xinhua, ENN

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