Seven years ago, China’s grassroots environmental activists won arguably their most remarkable victory. After a nationally coordinated, media-savvy anti-dam campaign, Premier Wen Jiabao responded in April 2004 by personally stepping in to suspend plans to dam China’s last free-flowing river, the Nujiang. With a nod to concerns that Chinese environmentalists had raised about the dam’s impact on local ecosystems, Wen asked that the plans be “seriously reviewed and decided scientifically.”
Wen’s response was in stark contrast to the government’s approach in 1989 when anti-dam activist Dai Qing had been sent to a maximum-security prison for a year for opposing the Three Gorges dam. To many in China’s fledgling environmental community, Wen’s action felt like the dawn of a new era — one in which China’s public would have a greater voice in shaping development.
Today, that moment looks less a beginning and more like a high-water mark — at least for that kind of direct-action campaign in China. With the country’s energy demand rising steeply (up 12 percent from last year), the government’s plan to build a cascade of hydropower stations on the Nujiang is now back in motion.
Two alarmed Chinese environmental groups — the Beijing-based NGO Green Earth Volunteers and Kunming-based Green Watershed — have in recent months conducted research trips along the Nujiang, documenting potential impacts. Armed with that research, a coalition of green groups sent a letter of concern to Premier Wen and China’s State Council before the most recent annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March. But this time, their plea drew no response. Instead, the government has announced plans to build a flurry of new dams over the next decade — which will have a capacity equivalent to nearly twice that of all dams ever built in the United States. The foundation for at least one of the Nujiang dams is already under construction.
One does not often now hear in China the phrase gongzhong canyu — “public participation” — which less than five years ago was a popular mantra among Chinese environmentalists and sympathetic government officials. The notion the phrase captured was that protecting the environment over the long haul would require engaging China’s citizenry through the release of environmental impact assessments and other tools to gather public input. The chief advocate for gongzhong canyu at China’s environmental ministry, deputy director Pan Yue wrote in 2006 that “in China, the major problem is that environmental protection laws are not strictly observed and implemented due to a lack of democratic legal mechanisms for public participation.” But Pan has since been politically sidelined, and no likeminded official has stepped in to fill his shoes.
Many of the trends that have choked grassroots green activism in China have been evident for several years, well before this spring’s crackdown on activists and public intellectuals of various stripes — what Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has dubbed “the big chill.” Yet the current political climate has made matters worse.
When online talk of a “jasmine revolution” (a call for reform in the spirit of the uprisings this spring in North Africa) began to circulate in February on Chinese web sites, the government reacted swiftly and harshly. Dozens of prominent Chinese activists, writers, and public-interest lawyers — most of whom had no explicit role in calling for a “jasmine revolution” — were detained or, even more threateningly, “disappeared.” (One of the most famous examples, the artist Ai Weiwei, has just been released.) Meanwhile at least 200 Chinese activists and lawyers were put under house arrest. While none of those targeted were devoted wholly to environmental causes, a new sense of dread has rippled through China’s broader public-interest community. The mood is tense.
Two Beijing-based lawyers who regularly take up environmental cases told me they were especially concerned about their prospects for having their licenses renewed this year, more so than in the past. (While the applications are pending, they did not want their names printed.)
Renee Xia, international director of the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders, explains how in China intimidation can spread like a contagion: “Lawyers who are largely doing work in what we call ‘public interest’ (including environmental issues) are all affected by the crackdown,” she says. “The fear factor is at play. The disappearance, detention, and then silencing of human rights lawyers sent out the warning to a much larger circle of lawyers. Many lawyers also believe, to be able to continue their work — to avoid being barred from practicing law at all – they would have to stay quiet for the time being.”
Wen Bo, a longtime Beijing-based activist who is in touch with many smaller environmental groups across the country, says he does not think green groups are being targeted per se — any more than other civil-society groups in China. Yet he adds that he sees a clear glass ceiling for Chinese environmentalists; the government does not want any single group or activist to gain too much influence. “There are many small heroes, but it is hard to become a big hero, to impact a lot of people,” he says. “If you become too big, the government will be worried and will try to stop you. That is why there are many small groups, but few big trees in China’s environmental movement.”
In China, the sense of intimidation now rattling activists stems from various agencies and levels of government; it would be a mistake to assume that all events are necessarily part of a single coordinated campaign. That said, in the past two years, a handful of startling events have sent a chill through the green community. As Li Xiaorang, currently at a research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, told a recent meeting of a U.S. congressional committee in Washington: “One distinction of this crackdown is that the government targets people beyond circles of political dissidents.”
One example of that was last year’s sentencing of Tibetan environmentalist Karma Samdrup to 15 years in prison, an unusually long sentence, for allegedly selling looted relics. His lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, and the London-based NGO Free Tibet maintain the charges against him were concocted. Another is last June’s attack, apparently an attempted murder, on one of Beijing’s most dogged science reporters, Fang Xuanchang. The young journalist for Caijing magazine was brutally beaten on his way home from work. He had earned a reputation for writing hard-hitting articles about failed government-funded projects.
And finally, a concern that may seem comparatively mundane — yet is anything but. In 2010, the government announced that Chinese NGOs would need to have their grants from foreign foundations notarized by local authorities, an extra level of oversight. For groups that often exist on a shoestring budget, the threat of delayed or cancelled funding is paralyzing. As Xia explains, “The [fund-raising] situation has got worse — as part of the overall crackdown on independent NGOs.”
Perhaps the most tragic irony is that the vast majority of green groups in China see their mission not as flouting the government, but rather holding it accountable to its own goals — in short, helping Beijing to clean up the country’s air, soil, and rivers, as the government claims it wants to do. Alas, in anxious times, a would-be helping hand may be mistaken for one about to strike. That’s unfortunate for all in China, and all downstream.