When Red Goes Green

Article excerpt

A burgeoning Chinese environmental movement tries to stem the devastation wrought by the country's massive economic transformation

BEIJING-IN NOVEMBER, MUCH OF China watched in horror as work crews struggled to contain a benzene spill that polluted the northeastern Songhua River and disrupted drinking water supplies to about 12 million people in the region for more than a week.

But even those watching the event unfold on TV from the comfort of their homes in Beijing weren't entirely safe from the effects of China's increasing environmental decay. China's capital is one of the most polluted in the world and lung cancer is now the number one cause of death here, according to China's own State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). A thick cloud of sulfur envelops the city most evenings and a recent picture taken from NASA's Terra satellite showed the entire city covered by a nearly opaque band of gray smog.

With more and more people suddenly finding themselves directly affected by endemic pollution, public awareness of and anger over China's deteriorating environment is growing. And so is their willingness to take risks and do something about it, despite the strictures on organized political activity in this authoritarian state.

"People are taking a stand," says Dai Qing, a political and environmental activist who was jailed during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Dai emerged from prison to champion opposition to the giant Three Gorges Dam, which she calls "the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world."

In the decade since China's first environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, was allowed to be registered in 1994, more than 2,000 environmental NGOs have risen all over the country, according to government reports. Once disparate, under-funded, untrained and badly equipped, many of these NGOs are now learning how to organize and empower themselves. Over the last two months, Dai has been running a communications workshop for local NGO workers from a small office within the bowels of a humble-looking residential neighborhood in Beijing.

Zheng Jun Feng, 43, a scientist with Green Remote, a local NGO that studies satellite imaging and remote sensing data, says he attended the sessions because he needs to find better ways to get around the controls and constraints the Chinese government places on his work.

"I want to learn how to take my thoughts and ideas to foreign friends," Zheng says, echoing the view of many activists here who say foreign money and expertise is critical for China's budding NGOs to grow.

A widening impact

This call is being increasingly heeded abroad. Dai says her sessions are being co-sponsored by Probe International, a Canadian environmental watchdog; group, and George Soros' Open Society Institute. One reason international aid is flowing to China's environmental NGOs is that while China's booming economy is buoying global markets, the environmental fallout of this consumption is spreading.

"A lot of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants from China are reaching Japan with the western wind and even the West Coast of the United States," says Dr. Tsutomu Toichi, managing director and chief executive economist of the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo.

Yet China, along with other developing nations such as India, is free of any obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to reduce the emission of various ozone-depleting gases. (The United States and Australia, who together account for about 27 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, have also not agreed to sign the protocol.)

A concerned Japan has tried to encourage China, which emits about 25 million tons of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide each year, to install de-sulfurization units in its coal-fired power plants by providing it with technical know-how and more than $40 million in "green aid." Yet Toichi says that "most Chinese power companies prefer to pay the financial penalties" of not installing the equipment because it's cheaper to do. …