CHINA: Help from the People; Environmental Activists Are Having an Impact

Article excerpt

Byline: Craig Simons

The turnaround was, by Chinese standards, amazingly swift. On Jan. 18 China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) ordered 30 major construction projects--most of them massive power plants scattered around the country--to shut down because they hadn't conducted required impact studies. Twenty-two quickly complied, paying fines of $24,000 each. But the rest--including three plants being built by the state-run China Three Gorges Corp., the influential developer behind the $27 billion Yangtze River Dam--ignored the directive. A bureaucratic turf battle raged until last week, when the company suspended work and vowed to comply. "It's astounding, because in the past regulatory bodies used to 'swat at flies but not at tigers'," says Fang Ning, deputy director of the Political Science Institute at China's Academy of Social Sciences, quoting a Chinese proverb.

China is getting tough on overdevelopment, for reasons big and small. Until now, as the country's growth rocket-ed along, developers ran roughshod over environmental regulators, despite new laws giving the latter increased authority. Power plants, in particular, have been untouchable. Demand for electricity has outstripped supply, forcing some of the country's factories to cut operations to just a few days a week. But China's increasingly toxic environment may pose an even greater threat to its citizens. Since President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took over the reins of government in 2003, they've sought to bolster their popular support by appearing to tackle such quality-of-life problems. Doing so also dovetails with another of their priorities, throttling back the racing economy.

That confluence of interests has given a boost to China's fast-growing environmental movement. Green NGOs have been not only tolerated but supported by usually suspicious officials because "the government can't say, 'We don't want a good en-vironment'," says Nick Young, a Beijing-based publisher of newsletters on China's NGO community. The number of green activists has thus been mushrooming. "In the mid-1990s, there were very few groups promoting environmental protection," says Wang Yongchen, an environmental journalist who helped found Green Earth Volunteers--with 50,000 members, one of China's largest eco-NGOs. Now, according to government statistics, China has more than 2,000 nongovernmental environmental groups.

Those numbers have, in turn, added to the clout of formerly ineffective agencies like SEPA. Pan Yue, SEPA's deputy director, is a well-connected Communist Party rising star who "clearly has Wen Jiabao's ear," says Elizabeth Economy, a China specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Wen, a former geologist, chairs a high-level advisory body that includes both Chinese and foreign environmental experts. But the spread of activist groups lends muscle to their pro-environment policies. …