Taking China to Court; Environmentalists Have Found an All-American Way to Challenge the Worst Polluters-Class-Action Lawsuits

Article excerpt

Byline: Sarah Schafer

Earlier this year, villagers in Xiping, in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, scored an unprecedented victory in a country still struggling to build a sound legal system. With the help of the Legal Center for Pollution Victims--a prominent nongovernmental organization in Beijing--they filed a U.S.-style class-action lawsuit against a chemical factory they claimed was polluting the local river and ruining their mushroom and cabbage harvests. Needing evidence, activists asked the villagers to collect samples of the greenish water near the chemical plant and to shoot photographs of dead bamboo and other plants.

The locals did so, and their efforts paid off. This spring a provincial court ordered the factory to pay about $85,000 in property damages to the farmers who had joined the suit. With more than 1,700 plaintiffs, it was the largest environmental class-action lawsuit in China's history and a huge success for the lawyers at the Center. "Our work is very practical and full of results," says Xu Kezhu, a lawyer who worked on the case. "We have confidence we will win more and more cases."

Chinese environmentalists are increasingly using such group lawsuits to rein in the country's worst polluters. They represent a small but growing number of the 2,000 environmental lawsuits filed each year, according to lawyers and legal scholars. Though they are not the same as American class actions (partly because people who are not named as original plaintiffs cannot claim compensation, or join the "class" after the lawsuit is adjudicated), they are similar, and many people still use "class action" to describe them. A 1991 Chinese law made it legal for people with environmental grievances to bring these types of suits--as long as they did not sue the government itself. This opening gave China's environmental movement--which has always been given a bit more leeway by Beijing--a powerful new method to further their cause.

The Legal Center for Pollution Victims is the main organization pushing class-action suits. The Center, located at the Beijing University of Politics and Law but funded by international donors, was founded in 1999 by a lawyer named Wang Cangfa. Wang now has 10 full-time employees and more than 200 volunteers across the country. Wang's center trains lawyers and judges to recognize international standards of environmental protection, publicizes big cases, and makes policy recommendations to the leadership. …