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Green China: Why Beijing Fears a Nascent Environmental Protest Movement

Worried about the health effects of China’s out-of-control pollution, citizens are starting to take action.

By Jennifer Duggan

Sometimes in the middle of the night, a pungent odor permeates the suburb of Asuwei, outside Beijing. A chemical tang mixed with the rotten smell of garbage, it can be so strong that it awakens Hu Jun from her slumber. She says that when the wind blows in a certain direction, she knows the smell is coming and closes the windows before going to bed. But it still gets in. “I can smell it when I’m asleep. It comes through the cracks. It can permeate the room and wakes me up,” says Hu, a university professor in her late 50s. (Her name has been changed, as speaking negatively about the government in China can result in harassment, persecution, or imprisonment.)

Asuwei is past the end of Beijing’s sprawling subway line, where the city meets the countryside, close to a river and a hot spring resort. The stench comes from an overflowing nearby landfill; opened in 1996, it has grown with the Chinese capital’s population and wealth to exceed capacity. Hu knew about the landfill when she left the city center a decade ago but believed the upmarket development of neat houses with tidy lawns where she was making her new home would be a quiet, idyllic place to live. But soon residents were complaining about the garbage smell, and five years ago, the local government installed giant chemical-spraying guns, a kind of enormous version of a Febreze air freshener. But instead of solving the problem, the putative deodorizers created another. Hu says that now she can almost taste the chemicals in the air. “It is not merely a bad smell; it is a smell that is a mix of the chemicals and the garbage.”

Beijing now produces almost 15 billion pounds of municipal household waste each year; the landfill at Asuwei receives 7.2 million pounds. In an effort to deal with the growing amount of trash generated by China’s expanding middle class and increasingly consumerist society, Beijing and other cities are building huge incinerators—including one close to the landfill in Asuwei. Hu is worried; once fully operational, the new incinerator will reportedly burn 6 million pounds of garbage a day. Environmental authorities have said the project passed the required assessments, but Hu and other residents are mistrustful, fearing the emissions that will come from the plant. “The environment cannot tolerate it, and our health would be at risk,” she says. She maintains that everyone in the area is against the incinerator, though only a few—including Hu—are taking action, organizing and participating in public protests. She spends a lot of time reading and analyzing reports and environmental assessments, trying to find a way to stop the incinerator from opening.

China’s leaders appear fearful that the many, small localized bands of discontented citizens like Hu will coalesce into a larger movement; it now spends more money on internal security, which includes managing and suppressing these protests, than it does on its military. The unification of what are now disconnected grassroots actions against specific pollution sources into a national environmental movement is perceived as a threat to the rule of the Communist Party. The Internet, used by activists and protesters as a tool for sharing information, is often quickly scrubbed of evidence of any protest actions or criticism of the government. Earlier this year, a documentary film on China’s environmental ills received hundreds of millions of hits in just one week before being taken down by government censors, presumably out of fear that it could become China’s Silent Spring moment, sparking a nationwide outcry. At the same time, citizens are fearful too—of the rash of toxins that threaten their lives, and of the government that has shown it is willing to punish those who dare complain about the threat. Nevertheless, complaining they are, in increasing numbers and with increasing boldness—and impact.

Over a traditional lunch of shared dishes, Hu explains her motivation. “Our main disagreement is that the government believes the pollution can be under control, but we don’t,” she says, getting animated and waving her chopsticks. “The government said they could control the pollution in the landfill, but the stinky air is constantly there. I’m told the landfills in the U.S. don’t have any smell at all. Golf courses, parks, and cafés are right around them. But our government doesn’t have good management ability. It’s actually a public trust issue.”

Such fears seemed to be confirmed on the night of Aug. 12, when a series of explosions at a chemical warehouse rocked the port city of Tianjin, 75 miles from Beijing. Cell-phone video broadcast around the world recorded a fiery red ball exploding from a building, a flash, and then a massive bang as a second, even bigger fireball engulfed the sky. More than 150 people were killed.

Criticism and anger have since been expressed across China, with users on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, questioning how hazardous chemicals could be stored so close to residential areas in violation of national safety standards; facilities with hazardous chemicals are forbidden from operating less than one kilometer from residential and public buildings, though it’s not clear whether the warehouse owner will face fines or criminal penalties. Residents whose homes were destroyed in the blast also took part in protests, demanding compensation. The warehouse that exploded was found to have been holding 40 types of chemicals, which according to state media included 700 tons of sodium cyanide, 800 tons of ammonium nitrate (the fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing of 1995), and 500 tons of potassium nitrate. Residents fear pollution in the area since the explosion, and reports surfaced of chemical rain falling afterward and thousands of dead fish washing up nearby.

The outrage expressed around the Tianjin disaster reflects significant and growing concern about the state of the environment and pollution caused by the country’s coal-fired power plants and industrial operations. According to a Pew Research Center poll published in September, air pollution and water pollution are Nos. 2 and 3 on the list of Chinese citizens’ top concerns. (No. 1—corruption—is itself linked to pollution, as those in a position to do something about it have connections to industry, and if air and water pollution are counted together they dwarf corruption as the chief concern). Air pollution is a visible and highly publicized problem, and the burgeoning middle classes, well educated and with newfound leisure time, are becoming increasingly upset and outspoken about toxic water and soil. Last year, almost 90 percent of China’s biggest cities failed to meet air-quality standards, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (even as emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide fell slightly, the ministry reported in September). Despite gaining worldwide attention for its “airpocalypses,” when pollution levels have reached 755 on a scale of 500, Beijing isn’t even in the top 10 of China’s most polluted cities. While emissions from coal-fired power stations cause choking air above, polluting factories leak chemical-laden wastewater, poisoning rivers and farms. Only recently did the full scale of China’s environmental degradation come to light: After years of keeping the results of a soil pollution survey a state secret, the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2014 admitted that almost 20 percent of the country’s farmland is polluted, mostly with toxic heavy metals from heavy industry and petrochemicals from intensive agriculture. Nearly 60 percent of groundwater is polluted. A study published in the scientific journal PLOS One in August estimated that air pollution contributes to the deaths of as many as 1.6 million people in China each year.

People are now making their voices heard in the form of protests, mostly against site-specific issues such as incinerators or chemical plants. Hu has written to authorities expressing concern about the Asuwei incinerator and in September 2009 took part with around 100 of her neighbors in a protest against it. Hu is smartly dressed, with jewelry and fashionable dark-rimmed glasses. She was at the vanguard of a new class of protesters—well-informed citizens concerned for their health and their families’ future. When construction plans were delayed soon after they first protested, some thought their actions may have had an effect, but blueprints for the incinerator were later revived—it would now be double the size originally planned. Residents say they weren’t consulted; the first they heard about it was when an environment assessment paper was published. “We started to fight against it again,” says Hu. Construction has begun anyway.

Maya Wang, a researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, says that although these protests focus on local issues, they are connected to the bigger environmental problems facing the nation. “Chinese people in general are more concerned about pollution. In big cities in particular there have been large scale protests, often because the environmental pollution in China has increased quite dramatically,” she says.

Protests have been growing in number and size over the past decade. According to Yang Zhaofei, vice-chair of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, a Beijing-based NGO, the number of environmental protests has increased by an average of 29 percent every year since 1996; in 2011 the number of major demonstrations rose 120 percent.

Lu Yuyu runs a website that tracks protests in China using search engines and information gathered from social media and also sees the number of environmental protests rising drastically. Lu tracks all types of demonstrations, but, he says, “protests about environment and pollution are increasing not only in number but also in scale. Environmental protests are seen across the country in every province, in both cities and the remote countryside.”

The government appears worried. The first year China spent more on internal security than on military defense was 2011; the gap widened over the next two years, and in 2014 Beijing stopped reporting the numbers separately. Official figures put the number of “mass incidents”—protests over corruption, abuse of power, pollution, and other issues—as having risen more than tenfold between 1993 and 2010. Beijing has also since stopped reporting those figures.

Lu says one thing he’s noticed over years of tracking public protests and demonstrations is that environmental protests “are usually by far the largest.” They’re also the ones that see the most violent crackdowns. “Pollution is something that affects everyone,” he says. “It can easily gather the whole village, town, or city onto the streets.”

Hu is cautious when discussing the protest she took part in, outside the Agricultural Exhibition Center in the center of Beijing, where she and her fellow demonstrators unfurled banners calling for the incinerator project to be scrapped. Such acts are controversial in society and therefore a sensitive topic for Chinese. She says local authorities and the Beijing government opposed the action—a polite way of saying there was retribution. According to media reports at the time, the protest was deemed illegal and broken up by police; five protesters were arrested and detained.

Incinerators are a particular flash point of public opposition. So are chemical plants, particularly those producing paraxylene (PX), which is used in the manufacturing of plastic and polyester. People living nearby worry about cancer, asthma, and local water and soil quality—doubtful, as Hu is, that the facilities will be run properly and that potentially toxic emissions will be kept within safe limits.

In June, a series of large-scale protests took place in Jinshan, a suburb of Shanghai, just on the rumor that a PX plant was to open in the vicinity. The local government issued assurances that there would be no such plant, but according to Chen Liwen, an environmental activist, few people believe such statements. “The local government tell the people there are plans for a park or a temple and after they get the land they change the land use,” she says.

Thousands took to the streets. Protests continued for more than a week; many came out several days in a row. Local and national media, controlled by the state, are thought to have been ordered not to report on the protests, as few news stories about them surfaced in China—only the local government’s official statements—and a camera operator for an international news outlet was blocked by police from filming. However, photos and video circulated widely on social media before they were deleted, presumably by censors. Photos showed protesters filling four lanes of a highway. Some wore symbolic face masks; others carried banners reading, “Give us back our Jinshan,” “No to PX,” and “Protect the environment.” Around 40,000 people took part, according to one report. A small number of protesters managed to get to the municipal government offices in the center of Shanghai but were hauled away after scuffles with police.

One protester, who did not want to be named, said by WeChat, a messaging app popular in China, that a number of chemical plants are already in Jinshan, and many feel the emissions are a problem. She said locals are worried about their health, as a lot of people in the area suffer from cancer. “Our main request in this protest is asking the government to stop building new chemical factories; do not expand the chemical area in Jinshan,” she said. “The chemical factories are swallowing our living space and emit poisonous air.” One statistic widely circulated in China puts the rise in lung cancer deaths over the past 30 years at 465 percent. “People are concerned about their health, particularly from heavy metals and dioxins from emissions,” says Chen.

Hu says she has suffered respiratory illnesses a few times a year ever since the chemical sprays began. “It starts with a cough, then fever,” she says, touching her throat. “One time I was in the hospital for several days. The doctors asked me if I do some kind of job that exposes me to dust.” Hu can’t prove her illnesses are linked to the landfill and the deodorizing chemicals but says many others in the area have also fallen ill. “The landfill has had a great impact on nearby residents’ health,” she says. “Most of the diseases are related to air or water pollution. With the incinerator there will be two pollution sources.”

For many years, the focus for China’s citizens has been to increase wages and living standards. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, but the country’s industrialization has taken a tremendous toll on the environment. Ironically, the huge increase in disposable income has expanded health consciousness and spurred a growing awareness of those ecological ills. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, sales of air purifiers and face masks are booming, as are sales of organic and imported food and bottled water as people try to ensure safe food and water and clean air for their families.

These worries were both confirmed and animated earlier this year when the documentary film Under the Dome, researched and presented by a popular former television news anchor, Chai Jing, went viral and gave encouragement to environmentalists and momentum to their cause. Chai, who lives in Beijing, took a stark look at air pollution’s sources and effects. She tells the story of how her daughter was born with a benign tumor. While she doesn’t link her daughter’s condition with air pollution, she says the experience made her aware and “afraid” of pollution, reflecting the fears of parents in cities throughout the country. In one scene, Chai asks a young girl in Shaanxi province, China’s coal heartland, if she has ever seen stars. “No,” the girl replies. Chai asks if she has seen blue sky. “Slightly blue sky” is the answer. Chai asks if the girl has ever seen white clouds; the girl says, “No.”

The minister of environmental protection, Chen Jining, initially praised the documentary, and within days it had been viewed and shared online hundreds of millions of times, blowing up on social media and messaging apps like WeChat. Ma Jun, China’s best-known environmentalist, described the documentary as “one of the most important pieces of public awareness of all time by the Chinese media.” But Under the Dome proved to be a little too popular, and just over a week after its release it was removed from Chinese websites.

Protests like the ones in Jinshan are almost always focused on a particular plant or project. Though significant because the concerns are real and direct—a persistent cough, a daughter’s asthma, a river that no longer produces fish—they are essentially NIMBYish in nature. There is no organized network attempting to address environmental policy at a national level. Protesters to this point, says Daniel K. Gardner, professor of history at Smith College, “are not saying, ‘Down with the government.’ They are saying there has been no environmental assessment or consultation with the public, and the government promised that. And they want the government to do something about it.”

Under the Dome may have changed that. Gardner, who is writing a book on environmental pollution in China, says that while the government admits that pollution is a real problem—state media reported in August that legislators concerned about water pollution “grilled” members of the cabinet, who promised to address it—the popularity of Chai’s film made officials nervous. “Now there was the possibility of some sort of organized movement,” he says. “Chai Jing galvanized what is already an awareness, and that is what the government is afraid of, this galvanization of the public.”

China’s environmental ills are now high on Beijing’s agenda, with Premier Li Keqiang, in March, going as far as to say the government was “declaring war on pollution.” He further declared the government was “determined” to tackle smog and environmental pollution, admitting that the progress made so far “falls far short of the expectation of the people.”

The government knows that a widespread environmental movement could lead to the development of an organized civil society and sees this as a threat to the power of the Communist Party. “If you look at some of the former republics of the Soviet Union or countries in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, or other countries in Asia,” says Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, “you find that in a number of cases, an environmental issue was the trigger or a contributing factor to the social discontent in large-scale protests and the eventual overthrow of the government. The Chinese government is well aware that the environment can be part of a broader social movement for change.”

Protests are kept local both by officials’ sometimes giving in to the demands of protesters or portraying them as motivated purely by self-interest. “Some of these protests have been quite successful, but none has coalesced into pressure on the government to engage [or] to change the abuse of power and corruption that lead to these environmental problems,” says Wang of Human Rights Watch. “The government have been good at ensuring that these do not spread beyond the local areas that they occur in, [even though] these issues are remarkably similar across the country.”

While some environmental protests appear to be tolerated and at times can be successful in their aims at getting plans for a plant delayed or cancelled, in general protests are not welcomed and can be put down by the authorities. To keep a protest from spreading, local authorities try to stop the flow of information. Chinese media are squelched, and censors delete information shared on social media. While a public action is taking place, mobile communications can be cut (there were reports of this happening during the protests in Jinshan).

During the reporting of this article, I tried, using WeChat and Weibo to make contact with a number of protesters who had been involved with the demonstrations in Jinshan. Most were reluctant to talk, especially on WeChat, perhaps because of reports that the app is monitored. Months afterward, it was still difficult to talk to anyone who took part. One woman who had posted a lot of information and photos on social media during the protests had seemed eager to talk. We exchanged messages over a number of weeks, and she invited me to Jinshan to show me the chemical plants.

A few days before we were to meet, though, she stopped replying to messages. Another protester, who had agreed to talk by telephone, also stopped responding. While I can’t know for sure why these individuals shut down our correspondence, it seems likely—as other sources have expressed similar concerns to me and other journalists here—that they were worried about the consequences of talking to a foreign journalist about protests against the government. Wang of Human Rights Watch says it is likely there have been some repercussions for those involved in the Jinshan protests, especially as civil society and activism across all areas—from labor to freedom of speech to ethnic autonomy to religious rights—have seen crackdowns in the last couple of years. “It’s quite common to expect that the authorities take measures that have to do with intimidation and harassment of people who were involved in [the Jinshan protests],” Wang tells me when I ask her why she thinks these sources might have gone silent. “From NGOs to activists to the participants of these protests, the amount of pressure has generally increased.”

Chen Liwen echoes this sentiment, saying it has become riskier for people to take part in protests in recent years. “It is more and more dangerous than before. Because the control in China is very strict, after the protest the police will find out the organizer and they will detain them,” she says.

As if to prove Chen’s point, the night before I was to meet with an environmental activist, the source received a phone call warning her not to meet with me. The caller knew the time and place of our meeting, which had been arranged over email. We made alternate plans, but the day after we met she received a visit from two men believed to be public security officers, wanting to know what we had discussed. A military parade—for which the government slowed or ceased operation of more than 12,000 power plants, factories, and cement plants in the region to ensure blue skies—commemorating the end of World War II was to take place the following week, and activists frequently come under increased pressure and surveillance before such official spectacles.

Despite potential consequences, Hu has not ruled out organizing or protesting against the incinerator in Asuwei now that it isunder construction. She sighs heavily at the suggestion, indicating it is not something she wants. “It’s still a long way to go,” she says. In the meantime she is trying to fight by legal and administrative means. She and her neighbors have consulted experts and activists on strategy. “It’s very tough,” she says. “I need to read a lot of paperwork. It’s a learning process.” Nevertheless, she’s not giving up. “This is for the common good. So I’m not afraid of anything.”

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