Chinese eco-detective treads lightly
Zhang Yadong provokes and soothes government on environmental issues
“Can you smell something?”Skip to next paragraph
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Zhang Yadong stands on the banks of a murky stream and wrinkles his nose at the salty odor.
The Chinese government has promised for years to clean up this section of the Songhua River, known as the He Jia Gou stream. But it’s unclear what progress has been made.
Mr. Zhang is using old-fashioned shoe leather to find out.
Zhang takes in the scene: Across the river, dust swirls around a construction site. Nearby, a rust-colored pipe empties into the stream. On the banks, a few small vegetable plots are nestled against the brown water.
To gather information, the amiable young man strikes up conversations with some of the locals.
Three laborers sit by the riverbank, a businessman perches on a ledge with a book, and several farmers work in the vegetable plots below.
Zhang begins firing off questions: What is being built? What flows from the pipe? Is the ground water safe for growing crops?
When he leaves, he has a series of notes, to verify later with other sources: The buildings across the river are to be new offices. A planned water treatment plant has been started, but construction has proceeded in fits and starts. The pipe emits wastewater from construction sites. And the farmers are able to grow vegetables – but must sell them far from town, as locals won’t eat food grown here.
None of the men comments on the smell. “They’ve been here so long, they think it’s normal,” Zhang says.
This is one of his regular “investigation trips.” For the past several years, Zhang, the head of an independent environmental group in Harbin called Green Longjiang, has organized groups of volunteers – mostly young people and university students – to be eyes and ears on the ground, monitoring how the government’s green policies are working in practice.
“I believe the government has the good intention,” he says. “But sometimes there is too little money, and sometimes the leader thinks he is right, just like a hero, but his decisions may be wrong. So we must keep checking.”
These investigative trips cover a range of topics – gathering information about pesticide use, disposal of household waste, and industrial pollution. The longest trips are 15 days, usually organized during school holidays.
“When we go a factory, we talk to the leader,” he explains. “Then we talk to the people around to check whether what the leader says is right or not.”
In China, the enforcement of Beijing’s environmental priorities falls to lower levels of government. But a host of obstacles at the local level – including lack of staff, resources, and technical expertise, as well as corruption – often means a gap between official goals and the facts on the ground.
“In China, the central government pays more attention to the environment than before,” says Li Yanfang, an environmental law professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “But if a victim in the countryside has no good relationships with the outside, maybe no people pay attention.”
Sometimes information tracking environmental outcomes is gathered and withheld. Sometimes it simply doesn’t exist.
“Collecting reliable data is a major challenge,” says Yang Fuqiang, vice president of the Energy Foundation, a Beijing-based research center that advises international donors.