In the spirit of the UN Millennium Development Goals, every week, thousands of individuals across China are demanding enhanced environmental standards. Their numbers are increasing. The Chinese government must make it a priority that the safety of these actors is secured.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, "everyone has the right to live in a world free from toxic pollution and environmental degradation."
The former director of the UN Environment Program, Klaus Toepfer stressed this point in 2001 when he said: "It is time to recognize that those who pollute or destroy the natural environment are not just committing a crime against nature, but are violating human rights as well."
In 2004, the Chinese authorities added to the constitution the clause, "the State respects and protects human rights." Despite this declaration, those who become open advocates of environmental protection in China face real risks.
The UN Millennium Project Report on Environmental Sustainability states that clean water and air are: "preconditions for human life."
According to the report, pollutants can cause "respiratory illness, cancer, and even death." Pan Yue, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, recognizes the urgent need to protect individuals from pollution. Last year, he said that: "the traditional ways of development have caused the near breakdown of China's environment and people's lives are in great danger."
The World Bank was forced to remove pollution-death estimates from a report it prepared last year in cooperation with the Environmental Ministry. Chinese officials told the bank the numbers were too sensitive and may contribute to growing civil unrest.
The excised information included estimates that as many as 750,000 people die prematurely each year in China because of air and water pollution. At this rate, from a period beginning this year, until 2012, 3 and 3 quarter million individuals in China will die prematurely because of pollution.
Pollution has made cancer China's leading cause of death. Vice Minister Pan reported in 2006 that cancer experts believed that countrywide 70% of China's more than 2 million annual deaths from cancer are pollution related.
A recent Harvard study estimates that 83 million people in China will die in the next 25 years as a result of lung disease, the vast majority of which is preventable and can be attributed to smoking and pollution.
Water pollution also poses a major threat to individuals in China and is so widespread that regulators say a major incident occurs every other day. Municipal and industrial dumping has left sections of many rivers "unfit for human contact."
The right to the highest attainable standard of health is guaranteed in several international human rights treaties which are legally binding in China.
Just as pollution is never an isolated event, but in fact a global problem, so too should pollution be understood as not only a threat to an individual's health, but a multi-dimensional violation of one's dignity, safety and psychological well-being.
Zhou Shengxian, director of the Environmental Ministry said in July 2007 that "discontent with pollution has resulted in a rising number of mass incidences," or, riots, protests and collective petitions. His agency received over 1800 petitions in the first month of 2007, an 8 percent increase over the last year.
The official number of pollution related protests in 2005 numbered 51,000 and in 2006: 60,000, or more than 1,000 protests per week. Citizen complaints about the environment are increasing at a rate of 30 percent per year.
The majority of environmental protests are over polluting factories or dams in rural areas, but increasingly urban areas are becoming sites of unrest. 2008 saw 3 widely reported public protests in the cities of Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai.
In August, protestors wearing surgical masks and carrying umbrellas blocked roads in Beijing and chanted anti-pollution slogans. Residents had complained about the nearby landfill and waste facility for three years. Due to the lack of progress on the issue, they started using the internet, text messages and demonstrations to be heard.
This exemplifies how the growth and development of the Internet in China has provided a new forum for drawing attention to environmental issues, though the parallel development of censorship of technology and surveillance by authorities poses new risks.
In the city of Chengdu, in April, around 400-500 people took to the streets, to protest plans for the construction of a plant and oil refinery. They circumvented a law that requires protestors to apply for a permit by saying that they were out for a "stroll."
One person was arrested on charges of inciting subversion and five were warned or detained. Accusations by the police included: using the Internet to spread rumors and harmful information, inciting trouble, illegally marching or demonstrating.
The Chengdu protests mirrored in many ways what had happened earlier in Shanghai, when hundreds took to the People's Square in January to peacefully protest a proposed magnetic levitation train. The demonstration was, in part, to express concern over potential radiation poisoning.
The government had released an invitation for responses about the train construction on an official website with a given window to respond of two weeks. Word spread quickly and discontent followed at the nature of how they were informed and the lack of follow-up to their many phone calls and letters.
All news media coverage of the protest was banned. The government sent police officers to neighborhoods and arrested people connected with the protests. They then forced activists to erase digital photos and to sign confessions. Demonstrators said they had been warned that if they were arrested a second time, they would be detained for 15 days. Others were warned by their employers that they would be fired if they participated in the protests.
Many of the protestors in Shanghai had the demonstrations in Xiamen on their minds.
The coordination of the Xiamen protests was unprecedented. In May 2007, students and professors sent out one million text messages urging citizens to protest construction of a chemical plant. The next month between 7,000 and 20,000 people marched through the city despite threats of expulsion from school or from the Central Party. They posted live reports on the internet.
After the protests, the local government announced that internet users would have to provide their real names, backed up by data from their identity cards when posting messages on websites registered in Xiamen. Local authorities said that a new law, the "Measures for Management and Disposition of Harmful and Unhealthy Information on the Internet" would be implemented soon.
When officials tried to relocate the project to the nearby Gulei Peninsula, they were again met with resistance. Residents of the area were alerted to official plans by local environmental activists who handed out fliers door to door. In March, a reported 10,000 protestors who began their demonstrations peacefully clashed with baton-wielding police for two days. According to witnesses a dozen people were injured and 15 arrested.
Activists are also working independently.
Wu Li Hong is an environmental activist from the Lake Tai area, where last year, 2 million residents had to stop using their main source of water because of an outbreak of toxic cyanobacteria. For more than a decade prior Mr. Wu had warned of the threat to the lake posed by chemical plants.
Mr. Wu photo documented factories dumping untreated waste and mailed the photos to environmental protection agencies. During this process he and his wife lost their jobs.
In 2002, the local police arrested Mr. Wu on charges of inciting a public protest, but released him without pressing charges. Three years later he contacted China Central Television and arranged for reporters to inspect hidden pipes. The TV station ran a special report and Mr. Wu was named an "environmental warrior" by the National People's Congress. In April 2007 he prepared to bring water samples and photographic evidence to Beijing. He never made the trip. Several dozen police and state security officers raided his home on the night of 13 April 2007.
Mr. Wu was quickly indicted on charges of blackmail. This charge was dropped without explanation and a new one added: fraud. The evidence against him consisted mainly of written testimony and his own confession. Requests by his lawyer to summon prosecution witnesses were rejected. In open court, Mr. Wu told the judges police had deprived him of food and forced him to stay awake for five days and five nights in succession, relenting only when he signed the written confession. It was ruled that he could not prove this and Mr. Wu received a sentence of three years.
Another environmental activist and 2006 winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, Yu Xiaogang, was forbidden to travel abroad after he sought to educate villagers about the potential harm of a proposed dam relocation in Yunnan Province.
Hu Jia, for whom this Parliament will award the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought later this month, is a prominent activist, who has embraced many human rights issues, including those concerning the environment.
Recognizing the importance of public participation, Vice Minister Pan has expressed that "if it's safe politically to get involved and help the environment, then all sides will benefit." He further added that: "We must try to convince the central government of that."
In a survey by Greenpeace, more than 10,000 Chinese participants reported the number one environmental story of 2007 to be "the rising consciousness among the Chinese public to have a say in environmental affairs," citing Xiamen as their example.
A strengthened and engaged civil society is key to solving environmental crises.
Today, there are approximately 2 thousand registered environmental NGOs in China. While frequently consulted by the government for their expertise, they are simultaneously carefully monitored and restricted in their operations.
In 2002, Friends of Nature, the first legal green NGO in China, was forced to remove one of its founding members, Wang Lixiong, because of his support for Tibetan monks.
Hangzhou activist Tan Kai, founding member of the group "Green Watch," was arrested in 2005. His organization had been monitoring riots over a polluting chemical plant in Huaxi, Zhejiang province, which included a reported 60,000 protestors. After being held for nearly seven months, Mr. Tan was convicted in 2006 on charges of "illegally obtaining state secrets" and sentenced to 18 months in prison. No evidence was presented against him and his trial lasted 3 hours. Another member of the group spent one month in prison for "illegally providing intelligence overseas."
Civil society is a driving force for environmental protection; the public plays a critical role in advancing transparency, rule of law, and official accountability, all of which are essential to safeguarding individuals from the threat of pollution.
The UN Millennium Declaration states that "we must spare no effort to free all of humanity, from the threat of living on a planet irredeemably spoilt by human activities."
Vice Minister Pan warned three years ago that in China, "the economic miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace." He projects the levels of pollution in China to double over the next 15 years.
In the Joint Declaration on Climate Change, the EU and China have highlighted the importance of raising public awareness to meet environmental challenges.
Indeed community involvement is a vital component to the success of sustainable development and the peaceful resolution of environmental crises.
Leaders should, in addition, officially recognize a healthy and engaged civil society as an essential partner in sustainable development and environmental protection.
Environmental activists must be protected and given a more prominent role in the debate; in designing strategies for environmental protection, a special focus should be given to the role of civil society.
In confirming commitments to respect international human rights standards, the Chinese government must take specific measures to protect individuals who demand their right to a world free of toxic pollution and environmental degradation.