When China's Green Goals Clash Against Red Ones

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Activist Wu Lihong, lauded by the government as "Environmental Warrior," jailed for three years

Wu Lihong is a concerned citizen who was named an "Environmental Warrior" by the government in 2005 for his work protecting Lake Tai (Taihu) and other bodies of water. (See his rainbow-colored collection of water samples here.) In May, after years of absorbing runoff from surrounding factories, lake Tai suffered a massive algae outbreak that Premier Wen Jiabao said sounded "the alarm for us."

But as Joe Kahn of the New York Times reported yesterday (and as we reported previously),

Mr. Wu ... bore silent witness. Shortly before the algae crisis erupted in May, the authorities here in his hometown arrested him. In mid-August, with a fetid smell still wafting off the lake, a local court sentenced him to three years on an alchemy of charges that smacked of official retribution.

Mr. Wu sits in prison now, the product of a system at times as toxic as the lake.It is sometimes thought that in China, where the state seems to tighten its grasp around any signs of dissent or unrest and thumbs its nose at western democracy, environmentalism is a space for airing complaints. The government largely permits green NGOs and even hands them awards; some officials are quick to acknowledge serious environmental problems.

Tom Friedman recently noted that the country’s badly-needed continued environmental improvement depends upon greater political freedoms—a view that the head of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency seems to endorse. Pan Yue said earlier this year, "Relying on the force of environmental protection and a few other agencies is far from enough; we need broad public participation, because the public are the biggest stakeholders in the environment."

But as with so much in a country as big and complicated as China, there’s often a gaping chasm between what is said and what actually happens.

The tragic irony of Wu' Lihong's situation illustrates a confluence of dangerous realities in today's China. It speaks to the government's desire to clean up its massively damaged environment—and its simultaneous (and competing, self-defeating) impulse to clean up its similarly tarnished image. It shows a strong desire to improve the environment (or, say, liberalize the economy or ensure justice)--and the inability to actually do so barring a stronger rule of law, a transparent legal system, and a sorting-out of official priorities that doesn’t consider sustainability or environmental activism the enemy of progress.

Ultimately, it shows a country that is sabotaging--whether by environmental degradation, or by the silencing of those who would challenge it--its own attempts at development.

If some days we ask "How far will China's green revolution (not) go?" other days it's hard not wonder how far it can go.


Shortly after the trial, Mr. Hang, the sundry shop owner and colleague of Mr. Wu, handed a reporter photos, clippings and documents collected over a decade of environmental work. He said he had no use for them now. Environmental work had become too risky.

It's important to be clear about the positive steps that are taking place, slowly but surely. Despite Mr. Wu's eventual arrest -- reportedly for exposing local government inaction -- those complaints attracted the attention of journalists from CCTV, the state-run TV network, among others. And though they were eventually forced to take action only after Tai Lake suffered its algae outbreak, the authorities in Wuxi have apparently made concerted efforts to clean up: 1,340 polluting factories have been closed, with more perhaps on the way. The clean-up has been driven not just by massive exposure of Tai Lake's problems, but by a spirit of reform sweeping the country and led by the central government's growing raft of incentives and disincentives.

Of course, as the environmental minister has noted, none of these changes would be possible without the people watching over polluters. People like Wu Lihong.

The Chinese government believes it must do nearly whatever it can to maintain its grip on power--a grip being reaffirmed and strengthened as I write during the 17th Party Congress and its associated cleanup in Beijing.

That grip on power is not based, at least not just, on some dark, maniacal desire to rule: considering the threat the state faces from the country's massive rural population, it’s based on a very honest desire to keep raising the country’s GDP, and it hopes, to raise its green GDP too. Sometimes too firm or too hasty a grip on things can end up accidentally crushing them. And sometimes, trying to grasp too much can only result in letting something go.

China's dirty open secret is not that it tries to grasp too much, but that a tangled web of corruption and mismanagement has left it at times with little grasp on its destiny at all.

See also China Calls for Citizen Activism, Detains Environmentalist Lake Algae Sounds Green Alarm in China, http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/11/chinas_green_re_3.php">China's Green Revolution and the South China Morning Post's profile of Wu Lihong.

Watch a video about Wu Lihong's case at the New York Times Choking on Growth site.

Read answers to your questions by Nick Young, editor of China Development Brief today, October 15th at the Times China blog. We wrote about the closure of the Beijing office of China Development Brief here.

Tags: Activism | China

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