Skip navigation

Saving China's endangered environment

As activists struggle to halt ecological degradation, the state is slowly opening up to efforts to clean up deadly pollution

RESEARCH: RICK CASH

XIPING, CHINA — Zhang Changjian was seeing patients in his storefront village clinic when a friend burst in, looking angry.''There's green and black stuff pouring into the river from the factory,'' he said. ''What should we do?''

Dr. Zhang grabbed his water-sampling bottle and his digital camera and went down to the factory drain to gather evidence. But when environmental-protection officials finally showed up hours later, they refused to test the bottled liquid. "They said it wasn't an official sample, so they couldn't use it," says Dr. Zhang with a knowing smile. By then the factory had been alerted, and the green and black water had stopped running.

It was a familiar runaround for the stocky 45-year-old, a village doctor turned pollution fighter who is helping lead a new wave of environmental activism in China.

A cheerful man with a grin like the pot-bellied Buddhas found in local temples, Dr. Zhang has put his career at risk to stop the chemical factory from fouling the air, water and soil of his hometown in the lush hills of southeastern China.

He plays a constant cat-and-mouse game with the factory and its protectors in the local government, with the doctor in the role of pesky, persistent mouse.

He snaps pictures of crippled trees and murky streams, and posts them on the Internet. He peppers local officials with meticulously detailed e-mails about pollution incidents. He pesters Chinese journalists to publicize his fight. Sometimes, he even creeps down to the factory drain to collect samples in the middle of the night, when he says the factory often discharges wastes under the cover of darkness.

He has even sued the factory, still an unusual step for an ordinary citizen in China.

None of this has won him friends among local authorities. The health board is trying to take away his medical licence, a serious threat to a father with four children.

"Dr. Zhang is a rare kind of man," said local farmer Soong Lin Gui, the friend who sounded the alarm about the polluted water. "To protect the environment of the village, he is ready to sacrifice everything."

Apart from Mr. Soong and a few other friends, Dr. Zhang has no allies in his fight with the factory. But though he may not know it, he is far from alone. Across China, a determined new breed of activist is fighting to save China's endangered environment.

In the polluted Huai river basin of north China, a retired military man photographs fouled waterways and visits cancer victims on his bicycle. In Chongqing in the west, an activist risks arrest to stop the pollution of the reservoir that is being formed by the Three Gorges Dam.

"A lot of politically aware people have moved to the environment movement," said Beijing activist Wen Bo, who travels the country, handing out grants from a private U.S. foundation to worthy environmental groups. "You can criticize government policies in the environmental field in a way you can't in other areas."

Others confirm that Beijing is giving activists more freedom, permitting private environmental groups to form and allowing students to organize anti-pollution campaigns and the media to investigate pollution scandals.

Though activists must still watch their step, it is a big change from the time when Dai Qing, an internationally known author and dissident, had to endure constant harassment from security police for speaking out against the Three Gorges, the $25-billion hydroelectric project on the Yangtze River.

Today, China's leaders acknowledge that they have a problem with the environment. The World Bank says that 13 of the world's 20 most air-polluted cities are in China. Air pollution alone is estimated to cause 300,000 early deaths each year, and the problem could get worse as newly prosperous Chinese rush to buy cars and as coal-fired power plants work overtime to meet the energy needs of a booming economy.

Three-quarters of the rivers running through Chinese cities are so polluted that they cannot be used for drinking or fishing. Acid rain falls on one-third of the Chinese landmass.

Recommend this article? 1 votes

Back to top