People cross an intersection on a hazy day in Beijing on July 20, 2017. Image Credit: AFP

All over China, official posters promoting environmentalism show a glittering city among verdant valleys under azure skies. President Xi Jinping hopes that “every day we will see a blue sky, green mountains and clear rivers … all across China so that our children will live in an enjoyable environment”

But when Wei Dongying, 51, China’s equivalent of whistleblower Erin Brockovich, started photographing the Qiantang river, which runs through her village, Wuli, in the southeastern Zhejiang province, she caught no blue sky and green land but only orange water and grey haze. She had hundreds of prints across the floor of her dining room, showing how dye from the Ruicai Chemical Company has flowed into the river since 2003. The polluted river has affected the villagers’ health: around 60 have died of lung, liver or stomach cancer, six in the past year alone according to Wei. Her mother-in-law and brother-in-law are among the victims.

Wuli (population 2,000) is a maze of alleyways. (I had to get around by taxi to avoid the attention of informers.) Wei Dongying has collected evidence of chemical pollution, annotating maps, making submissions to the courts and criticising the authorities’ lack of action; she says they are happy to let industrialists “buy their silence with red envelopes” (traditional when giving money). After a 15-year campaign, “the factories have not budged and we’re still stuck here. Has our struggle served any purpose at all?”

Wei Dongying is typical of the army of green activists that has sprung up in China in the past 20 years. By criticising the environmental disaster caused by three decades of capitalism, they question the basis of the economic growth policy of the Communist Party of China (CPC), its main claim to legitimacy since Deng Xiaoping. Given the scale of pollution, the party has been pragmatic in allowing environmental NGOs (ENGOs) extensive scope for action. But as their cause now threatens to weaken the regime, they also suffer constant repression. Green activists exist in permanent insecurity, caught between criticising the authorities and the need to view their actions in a long-term context.

Shen Chunyi, 19, a student, is, like many Chinese, angry about the environment. Like nine million fellow inhabitants of Chengdu, Sichuan’s dreary capital, she feels trapped by the air pollution caused by traffic and the petrochemical plant in nearby Pengzhou. “We didn’t see the sky all through the autumn and winter,” she said. “So when the sun did eventually appear a few days ago, everyone got their cameras out.” Things were so bad by December 2016 that several hundred people wearing antipollution masks protested in the city’s central Tianfu Square. “The demonstration was broken up, its leaders arrested and the official media silenced,” another Chengdu resident told me. Their fate is unknown.

Several months later, there is still an oppressive atmosphere over the square, dominated by a 30-metre statue of Mao. Police officers with anti-riot gear are on patrol. A squad of vehicles with flashing lights is on standby. When two vehicles started tailing my taxi and a man began photographing me, it seemed wise to leave Chengdu.

Environmental groups set up

Since 2013, the Chinese authorities have recorded 712 local anti-pollution demonstrations, both peaceful and violent (2). Other estimates suggest as many as 30,000, or even 50,000. This new consciousness has provided fertile ground for an explosion in environmental groups. The first, Friends of Nature, was set up in Beijing in 1993. Wu Yiqun started working for it with a few dozen other volunteers: “No one back then was concerned about the environment. Our activities were limited to tree-planting and bird-watching.” But in time these green activists, inspired by their US counterparts, organised themselves into an NGO, at odds with the all-powerful character of a regime which only tolerated approved “intermediate structures” (youth leagues, professional associations, unions).

China’s emergence from economic isolation favoured an influx of ENGO funding from abroad. Environmental disasters such as the deadly floods in 1998, made worse by the deforestation and soil erosion of the Yangtze river, mobilised new social forces to help victims. As did the symbolic blockade in 2004 of the Nu river dam project, in the southern Yunnan province, which would have flooded a Unesco world heritage site. In a system where everything comes from the top, ENGOs were unusual in emerging from the grassroots and from abroad.

According to the French embassy in Beijing, 8,000 of China’s 500,000 NGOs today are environmental, compared with just nine in 1994 (3). Their numbers doubled between 2008 and 2013. “Environmental groups have experienced the strongest growth of all in recent years,” said Wu Yiqun, founder of the ENGO Eternal Green.

The central authorities decided to allow these NGOs an unusual degree of freedom. ‘At local level, they can engage in a host of activities and criticise the government. You’d be surprised by how tolerant the authorities are of them,’ said Josh Chin, the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing correspondent. Wu Yiqun, who started Eternal Green in 2012 with 100,000 yuan ($15,000, Dh55,107) of his own money, agrees: the central authorities, previously suspicious, now seek his help with clean-up campaigns and even co-fund them. The state has even invited ENGOs to evaluate the impact of factory and motorway construction projects. Some, such as the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs run by Ma Jun, a well-known activist, compile blacklists of businesses with the worst records, including powerful state-owned companies.

Since 2015, ENGOs have also been the only organisations able to demand legal redress for environmental harm, encouraged by “increasingly strict environmental regulations”, according to professor of law Wang Canfa. This year, a court ruled as admissible a complaint from Friends of Nature against US oil giant Conoco Phillips, accused of causing the 2011 oil spill in Bohai Bay, east of Beijing. Wang Canfa hopes this legal framework will make it possible to relaunch cases stalled in the legal system, cases which he has been pursuing since 1998 on behalf of his NGO, the Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV). Among them is one on behalf of the residents of Yushutun, a village in the northeastern Heilongjiang province, against the state-owned Qihua Group, which is accused of dumping chemicals (4).

But China’s highly decentralised state has a problem: the consensus on the need for urgent environmental action at the top levels of government is not shared lower down. The interests of local apparatchiks often align with industrialists, and corruption is rife. What environmental policy can be implemented if Beijing’s directives are flouted on the ground? By scrutinising the actions of provincial governments, ENGOs can become guarantors of state decisions. “There’s a logic to the tacit alliance between these organisations and the central authorities to catch local governments in a pincer movement,” said Chloé Froissart, director of the Franco-Chinese Centre at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “So the NGOs act as an ad hoc check within the system.”

A reinvented contract

Sometimes, senior officials in the CPC pass on information to ENGOs to halt questionable projects. Mou Guangfeng did this over the lack of transparency in the Nu river dam approval process in 2003. Mou, deputy director of the impact office of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), recommended that the founder of the ENGO Green Earth Volunteers, Wang Yongchen, should carry out an impact study of her own. The resulting opposition forced then prime minister Wen Jiabao to halt the dam project in 2004 (5).

The party is aware that the middle classes expect the state to modernise. Their desire for economic growth is coupled with one for greater social justice, as shown by their unwillingness to put up with pollution, corruption, adulterated food and wealth disparities. The party-state’s ability to respond to their desires will determine its popularity, its internal balance of power, and the very probable reappointment of Xi Jinping in his post at the 19th National Congress in October. In the absence of civil rights, the conditions of a reinvented contract with the people depend on what the ENGOs do. Having been granted an auxiliary role in protecting the environment, they help improve how the CPC functions.

But the central authorities have set limits to their tolerance. This is evident in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. The city, on the banks of the West Lake, with its elegant temples and ancient Pagoda of Six Harmonies, is known as the Venice of the East. One Saturday morning, I attended a gathering of several hundred uniformed children in the assembly hall of Xuejun primary school. The ENGO Green Zhejiang had co-organised an education session on the values of generosity, excellence, being attentive to peers, and for each of these suggested a “dream” in one of the colours of the rainbow, among them a green dream of a China with “verdant mountains and blue waters”.

Hao Xin, 36, is vice-president of Green Zhejiang, which he set up in 2000. Its 17 full-time employees and 300 mainly student volunteers have organised eco-community projects and “hundreds of other activities”. He admits “it was hard at the start to get the authorities’ support. Official registration took 13 years.” Things got easier from 2012 when Hao Xin, a party member since 1999, created a party cell within the organisation. “The CPC encourages every new structure to establish its own cell. We were the first NGO in the province to set one up.” In return, the local party organisation gave Green Zhejiang free use of premises. These benefits in kind supplement funds from private Chinese entities, such as a foundation run by the Alibaba website, the authorities and individual donors. The party also honours devoted members: “Our association has received thousands of prizes to reward our actions,” said Hao Xin.

‘Cancer villages’ off limits

But state cronyism has also tied Hao Xin’s hands. I asked him which red lines he cannot cross: “It’s very hard to say. I’m not well placed to answer that.” He does not involve his organisation in demonstrations against the construction of toxic factories producing paraxylene, a hydrocarbon used in the manufacture of polyester, production of which has taken off in the province. Nor did he support the inhabitants in Wuli, contending with the contamination of the Qiantang river, though it is flows close to Hangzhou. He is bound by a strict duty of loyalty to the regime, which does not expect its legitimacy to be questioned.

The authorities have even instituted their own para-governmental associations. The All China Environment Federation (ACEF) publishes lists of endangered aquatic biodiversity (6), encourages Beijing households to reduce their electricity consumption (7) and leads legal actions. But such a close relationship with government brings self-censorship: state businesses cannot be criticised and “intervening in any of the hundreds of cancer villages [where the recorded rate is much higher than the national average] is off limits,” according to an anonymous ACEF employee. He said it was impossible for his organisation to work in the city of Shifang (Sichuan province), where there were major demonstrations against the construction of a metal plant by the Sichuan Hongda Group in 2012. “It’s a quarantine zone we can’t approach.”

The position of independent ENGOs is becoming trickier, as shown by Beijing Global Village, founded by star activist Liao Xiaoyi and very active in the Qufu region in the coastal province of Shandong; members have taken part in household waste recycling schemes and organic bean growing. Because my visit clashed with an official one by a powerful CPC apparatchik, being seen with foreign press was out of the question. The imminent 19th Party Congress has meant the party is more repressive, bringing great uncertainty for green activists, including figures once favourably regarded by the regime, such as Liao Xiaoyi. “Everyone is being extremely careful,” she said. “But we’ve met and made friends, and that’s great. Come back next year.”

There are ever more ways in which the ENGOs are beholden to the regime. Organisations need sponsorship from an official body to be registered. “Funding sources are audited in an annual check,” said Wu Yiqun. They have to maintain regular contact with the state bureaucracy and sometimes accept an “invitation to tea” (a background check). The government also restricts foreign funding: since 1 January 2017, the 7,000 non-Chinese NGOs have had to obtain accreditation from the ministry of public security. Besides these bureaucratic hurdles, they also have to avoid sensitive subjects such as Tibet and Xinjiang and only ever challenge local authorities, never central government.

‘Civil society will reinvent itself’

Journalist Wu Qiang thinks that the authorities in Beijing will not prevail: “Civil society will reinvent itself in new forms as it’s already doing with new online tools.” Social networks provide a forum where 710 million Chinese with Internet access (8) can express themselves informally. “There are seven to eight billion Weibo accounts in China,” says Deng Fei, 39, a green cyberactivist. “How can the authorities control all of them?” Deng has campaigned against polluting companies since 2011. He uses Weibo and WeChat, China’s biggest social networks. He encourages his six million followers to pressurise the regime by sharing photographs of environmental damage. “Weibo is the best way to reach a younger audience, but also to get them to act.” On Weibo you can find news about local demonstrations, censored by the official media; sponsor the protection of migratory birds or the reforestation of the Gobi desert on crowd-funding platforms; and criticise, or even mock, the authorities. Social networks have become the place to test the ever-shifting boundaries of censorship. ‘The red lines are unclear, so they have to be tested, and it’s in the interest of new media to stimulate creativity of expression,’ said Greenpeace’s Lin Li.

But all progress over freedom of expression is precarious, and heavy penalties are often imposed: in 2007 activist Wu Lihong was sentenced to four years in prison for criticising the pollution of Lake Tai in Zhejiang too vociferously. In 2016 green activist Liu Shu was arrested for revealing environmental data that the state classified as secret in the southern Hunan province (9). “There’s a long list of green activists who’ve been thrown in prison in the past 20 years,” said Wu Qiang.

I was unable to meet Chai Jing, the filmmaker whose documentary on air pollution, Under the Dome, was downloaded 155 million times on the day it went online in 2015. She is under surveillance and declined an interview. The situation is also difficult for lawyers. Hundreds have been accused of ‘subverting the power of the state’ and have been repressed since 2015. For litigants, bringing a case against the state is a delicate balancing act. “We’re taking action to sort problems, not to encourage victims of pollution to act against the government’s interests,” said Wang Canfa cautiously.

For most activists buffeted by unpredictable cycles of repression and tolerance, daily life is insecure. “If the struggle remains ecological and individual, that doesn’t pose a problem. But if it becomes an organised political force, ‘that’s dangerous,’” said Zhang Yanlong, a sociology professor at Beijing University. Campaigners can dream in green and blue as long as China remains red.

Translated by George Miller

Guillaume Pitron is a journalist.

(1) ‘China’s Xi says he checks pollution first thing every day’, Daily Mail, London, 10 November 2014.

(2) Eleanor Albert and Beina Xu, ‘China’s environmental crisis’, Council on Foreign Relations, New York, 18 January 2016.

(3) Kathinka Fürst, ‘Regulating through leverage: civil regulation in China’, University of Amsterdam, 2016.

(4) See ‘A case of land and water pollution in Qiqiha’er city, Heilongjiang province’ on the CLAPV website, 13 June 2012.

(5) See Andrew C Mertha, China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change, Cornell University Press, Ithaca/London, 2008.

(6) See ‘Cards of the aquatic biological species in the ten major rivers of China’ and ‘Catalogue of life China 2015 annual checklist and China biodiversity red list’, All-China Environment Federation, 13 July 2015, www.acef.com.cn/.

(7) ‘UNDP and GEF kick off a green initiative to empower local communities and NGOs in protecting the environment and combating climate change’, All-China Environment Federation, 4 September 2012.

(8) ‘Statistical report on Internet development in China. The 38th survey report’, July 2016, China Internet Network Information Centre.

(9) ‘China jails environmental activist for “revealing state secrets” ’, 11 October 2016, www.rfa.org/.