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Beijing lawyer fights for pollution victims

Xu Kezhu took pollution for granted – until she saw the clean skies of Europe.

By Christina LarsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2008

Among the evidence: A pipe from the plant to the Xiang River.

Christina Larson

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Beijing

The moment she stepped onto the grounds of the factory, Xu Kezhu knew that something was wrong.

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The walls of the plant, which makes agricultural chemicals in China’s southern Hunan province, were black with soot. Doors hung crooked on their hinges, broken windows had not been repaired, and the equipment looked badly rusted.

Bags of pig-feed additive – the factory’s main product – were stacked beside barrels that oozed dark liquid onto the floor. Everywhere, neglect and disrepair were evident.

“It did not look like all the rules were being followed,” Ms. Xu observes.

An energetic woman in her mid-40s, with long black hair and watchful eyes, Xu also found a pipe outside that led from the plant’s wastewater tank into the Xiang River – the local water source.

She suspected that this played a role in problems nearby farmers had recently reported: villagers sick with stomach pains, dizziness, and headaches; cattle refusing to eat; rice harvests declining; and fishermen pulling in empty nets.

On her visit, Xu spoke with factory representatives, villagers, and local officials. She scribbled notes and snapped pictures with her digital camera.

Xu is an environmental law professor at the China University of Political Science & Law in Beijing. She is also a co-founder of the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, a nongovernmental group housed on the university’s campus – and one of China’s first public-interest legal organizations of any kind.

Since its founding in 1998, the group has run a free legal-advice hotline, helping farmers nationwide whose fields and wells may have been contaminated by industrial pollution. Volunteers from the center have also personally taken up more than 80 pollution cases.

Their record reveals both the progress and contradictions in China’s environmental protection system today.

In roughly one-third of the cases, judges ruled that factories must close or pay compensation to victims. Another one-third of the cases yielded no result, and the final third are still pending.

In recent years, China’s central government has become increasingly worried about the vast environmental degradation wrought by unprecedented economic growth. According to the government’s own figures, more than 10 percent of China’s farmland is badly contaminated.

Yet even as Beijing has passed tougher environmental regulations, enforcement still lags behind principle.

“The problem,” Xu explains, “is how to enforce the laws and let the public know.”

Compliance with environmental laws has improved in some wealthy cities, such as Shanghai, but re­­mains problematic in poor and remote provinces. There, local environmental protection bureaus report to regional governments, which receive tax revenue from nearby factories – so regional governments have a big financial incentive to shield local industry.

The result is that even as Beijing passes stricter laws, environmental conditions continue to deteriorate. For instance, a recent measure to reduce sulfur emissions not only failed to curb pollution, but emissions actually went up.

“It’s definitely a misnomer, this notion of China as a ‘monolithic state,’ which can readily implement dictates from Beijing out in the vast expanses of the country,” says Bates Gill at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That may have once been the case,” he says, “but structural changes put in motion by post-Mao economic reforms have unleashed new forces – and made it harder to control.”

The head of China’s environmental com­­mittee conceded two years ago that some local governments do not enforce two-thirds of Beijing’s green laws.

Despite this, environmen­tal­ists like Xu are trying to improve things.

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