Chinese eco-detective treads lightly
Zhang Yadong provokes and soothes government on environmental issues
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Mr. Yang cited, as an example, the difficulty of monitoring the output of thousands of small coal mines across China. In 2003, Beijing discovered that its prior estimates had failed to account for about 50 million tons of coal consumed annually (that’s roughly one-third the yearly output of coal giant West Virginia).Skip to next paragraph
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The result is that even as China’s government pays increasing attention to environmental protection, it’s sometimes difficult to assess results.
Zhang’s concern about the availability of environmental information was galvanized rather dramatically in 2005 when he was a student at the Harbin Institute of Technology.
On Nov. 13 that year, a now-infamous chemical explosion at a factory upstream released 100 tons of benzene, which scientists classify as a dangerous carcinogen, into the Songhua River.
During the 10 days it took for the 50-mile-long chemical slick to drift downstream to Harbin, rumors spread of a pending disaster, but different levels of government offered contradictory information. None said what had happened.
In the absence of clear and complete information from either government or local media, there was panic. Residents weren’t sure whether to take shelter, stock up on food, or prepare first-aid kits. Some heard rumors of a coming earthquake.
Zhang went online to find information posted by eyewitnesses. He also received tips from a friend whose mother worked for the local water bureau – she was simply concerned about her son’s welfare.
He posted the information on message boards in the university cafeteria, along with notices urging students to stock up on bottled water.
A few days later, the Harbin government turned off water supplies to millions of people. Later, it confessed that the reason for the shutdown was a chemical spill.
Zhang says the city government took many swift and effective measures to contain the damage. But he seriously faults the government for not disclosing the reasons.
“After the chemical bomb, the pollution could not be stopped,” he says, “but the public still had the right to know what happened.”
Today his relationship with local environmental authorities is evolving, alongside expectations about environmental protection and public participation in China.
In a recent magazine article, deputy environmental minister Pan Yue wrote that the Chinese government needs to “call on citizens to participate in the environmental protection movement … otherwise, sustainable development will become a mere slogan.”
On some projects, the Harbin environmental bureau has given Zhang’s group its blessing.
This year, the group conducted a series of investigative trips to the nearby city of Shuang Cheng Shi to gather information about what kinds of pesticides farmers use. The government supported this initiative and even lent staff support.
Yet when he submitted a request last year to hold a memorial vigil on Nov. 23, the date the chemical spill reached Harbin – including distributing photos and pamphlets to keep the event in the public consciousness – the government tried to dissuade him.
Zhang held a small demonstration anyway. Interestingly, the government didn’t stop him.
This situation indicates the delicate dance between China’s emerging environmental groups and the government. Zhang says he feels that his collaborations with government help soften his frequent criticisms.
“Environmentalists who work collaboratively and constructively with government partners in a nonthreatening manner,” observes Drew Thompson, director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center in Washington, “are less likely to face opposition or restrictions from the government.”