The moment she stepped onto the grounds of the factory, Xu Kezhu knew that something was wrong.
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.
A dozen years ago, Xu says she took Beijing’s smoggy skies for granted. Then, in the mid-1990s, she accompanied her diplomat husband to live in Spain.
During her first extended stay abroad, she learned about environmental protection, as well as the concept of civil society, where individuals take independent action on social issues.
When she returned home, the bleak view from her 16th-story Beijing apartment didn’t look the same to her. She knew that something was wrong, and vowed to take action.
In 1998, Xu helped found the legal aid center with a fellow law professor Wang Canfa. As with many cases she has worked on, the chemical factory in Hunan province was brought to her attention by nearby villagers.
In Shutangshan, a village nestled in the mountains of northeastern Hunan province, a few hundred farmers grow rice and vegetables, and raise chickens, pigs, and ducks. But since the chemical factory opened in 2001, life has become harder.
Villagers’ many appeals to local authorities have not yielded substantial results.
Last year the factory owner told China Economic Times, a state-run paper, that his plant had some pollution problems, but said evidence had not been gathered to link villagers’ ills to the factory.
Xu then planned two trips to the factory to investigate. Now she is working with an environmental lawyer in nearby Changsha City to document the pollution. Their aim is to prepare a lawsuit to force the factory to shut down or upgrade.
“I want them to make the law work,” says Shutangshan resident Chen Li Fang, who has seen her orange trees shrivel and their fruit grow bitter.
Xu’s legal aid organization is not alone in its efforts to help clean up rural China.
Since a monumental 1994 law opened the first legal avenue for nongovernmental organizations in China, a nascent civil society has emerged here. According to the New York-based nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, some 3,000 independent (albeit with restrictions) green groups are active across China.
One example is the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, founded three years ago by former journalist Ma Jun.
“I identify water pollution as one of the biggest environmental challenges for China,” says Mr. Ma.
Ma wrote “China’s Water Crisis,” a book often likened in its impact to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”
In 2006, his organization launched the “China Water Pollution Map,” a free online database about water quality. The site also collects data on factories that violate China’s green laws.
His aim is to nurture a more informed and engaged citizenry. “We need to promote public participation to solve the water-pollution problem,” Ma says. “But without information and data, there cannot be meaningful participation.”
Xu also strives to increase public awareness of environmental laws and what she calls “environmental rights.”
To that end, her organization hosts an annual training program on environmental law. So far they have trained about 500 lawyers and judges from across China.
“The Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims’ most critical contribution to China’s environmental law is educating judges and lawyers,” says Linden Ellis of the China Environment Forum in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile in Shutangshan, villagers are putting their faith in Xu.
“Just to teach environmental law is not interesting to me now,” Xu says. “I feel I must put my knowledge to use and help people learn what is justice in China.”