China Wants Activists to Stay Out of Its War on Pollution

Date: 2020-03-06 04:05:44

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When Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war against pollution” in 2014, a few hundred residents of the city of Wuhan in central China took it as a cue.

They printed Li’s words on a six-meter (20 foot) banner and protested outside a foul-smelling incinerator plant they feared was causing illness in the community. Buoyed by the conviction they were answering the leadership’s call, the residents were instead harassed by local police officers who tore down the sign and trampled on it.

“We were worried and angry when we realized what was causing the stench and making our kids sick,” said Zhang Xijiao, 44, who was detained for a week for making the banner. “But we are like ants, the local government can crush us as they please.”

The episode kicked off a six-year fight that has seen Zhang harassed and monitored by the local authorities, with no sign that the government plans to relocate the incinerator despite her repeated petitioning and posting on social media about the pollution.

China is vaunting its climate credentials as it seeks to clamp down on environmental damage at home and demonstrate a commitment to the international order derided by U.S. President Donald Trump. Beijing has signed up to the Paris Agreement, spent big on clean energy, announced curbs on single-use plastics and made real progress in tackling air pollution. Yet what has become a key driver of the climate agenda globally—activism as popularized by Greta Thunberg—is all-but taboo in China.

One of the paradoxes of the Chinese system is that even as President Xi Jinping has made fighting pollution one of his main goals, civil society has been greatly restricted under his rule. That leaves little room for public discourse and open criticism of government policy.

As the campaigning residents of Wuhan found to their cost, pushing back against the authorities is a serious matter. More recently they switched tactics to try and draw the central government’s attention to their plight. But according to Zhang, Wuhan officials have blocked their attempts to reach Beijing, monitoring when they book tickets to travel to the capital.

Almost six years on from the first protests in Wuhan, many families with the means to do so have left, especially those with young children.

Ren Rui, 40, left her apartment in 2017 after her son developed a lung condition that required repeat surgery. She tried to rent it out, “but no one wants to move here.” Despite the financial pressure since, “I never regretted moving away.”

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