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13 April 2024

China's environmental patriot

Ma Jun before a polluted river in Beijing. More than 60 per cent of China's rivers and lakes are dangerously contaminated. (AFP)


In China, where dissent is often brutally suppressed, publicly shaming powerful corporations for destroying the environment is fraught with risk. Ma Jun treads carefully.

The author of China's Water Crisis, a savage catalogue of the country's environmental collapse, Ma now takes the fight to polluters, shaming factories on a website run by his non-governmental organisation the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).

And working out how far a small campaign group can push businesses – and the officials who back them – has become his specialty.

"There is a space there, but there is a line as well. The key is to understand both," said the soft-spoken 40-year-old.

"This is the Chinese condition. This is a country that has been ruled in a top-down way for thousands of years. Now you want to do things in a different way? We have to have some patience."

There is no doubting the severity of China's environmental crisis.

Centuries of slashing forests, diverting rivers and expanding agriculture were compounded by the arrival of the world's most polluting industries during the economic boom of the last 30 years.

More than 60 per cent of China's rivers and lakes are now dangerously contaminated, according to official figures. The desert is spreading from the north and the World Bank says 20 of the world's 30 filthiest cities are in China.

China's senior environment official Zhou Shengxian has said there were more than 50,000 public disturbances linked to pollution in 2005, state media reported, the last year any figures were released.

Despite the groundswell of anger, Ma is adamant any environmental progress must be measured.

"We want to see change, but we also want to see that this does not sink China into total chaos," he said.

The World Bank estimates the cost of air and water pollution is about 5.8 per cent of the country's GDP, prompting new central government policies.

Tougher rhetoric has been followed by stringent targets, major clean-ups and reforestation programmes.

There is also increased tolerance of critical media coverage of environmental issues and a wary acceptance of small-scale international and local NGOs.

But enforcement remains woefully lax, and Ma – who was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2006 – hopes public scrutiny can pressure polluters to clean up, as it has in the United States.

"Public participation is the key to dealing with our environmental problems," said Ma, who studied at Yale University in 2004.

"The pre-condition for any meaningful participation should be to allow those who are affected to have access to the information."

Using government statistics the IPE has created a map highlighting 30,000 violators of air and water regulations. Firms can only be removed after a third-party audit.

While Ma uses only government-approved data, his approach has still provoked angry responses from businessmen and occasionally from local officials.

"There are some extreme cases when they created a certificate with a chop (an official stamp) saying the company is 'basically OK' within hours (of being named on the site)," said Ma. "These are awkward moments."

Ma's gentle and legalistic approach is crucial. "When they learn that all the data come from the government I think many of them feel more at ease," he said.

Inducements have been offered – in a "delicate" way, Ma said – by those convinced the website is an elaborate shakedown.

"It is the traditional Chinese way of doing things," said Ma, who says he has never taken a bribe.

Ma Jun was born in Qingdao, a city on China's east coast. He grew up in Beijing, where his father, an aerospace engineer, encouraged him to learn English from one of the first foreign language radio programmes.

He studied English and journalism at university before becoming an assistant in the South China Morning Post's Beijing bureau.

Travelling with the paper's correspondents, he witnessed the toll China's economic boom was taking, prompting the research that developed into his 1999 book.

The discord between the idealised versions of the country's natural richness that fill Chinese literature and the brutal scarring of the landscape Ma saw inspired the groundbreaking study.

"It was an astonishing book. China's equivalent of Silent Spring (the 1962 book by Rachel Carson credited with helping launch the environmental movement in the United States)," said Mark O'Neill, a colleague during the 1990s, who added Ma's calm approach was crucial to the NGO's success.

"He has made the maximum use of the space, but without getting himself arrested or getting locked up. This takes great intelligence and savvy."

Most of the companies the website pinpoints are Chinese, but multinationals with operations in China have also been named.

Ma hopes the website will challenge the argument, repeated by big firms, that the complexity of modern supply chains prevents proper monitoring.

"From now on you cannot say 'I do not know'," said Ma, who runs IPE out of a small Beijing apartment.

US giant General Electric (GE) has used the site to check suppliers, and said it could even help find new customers.

"I think it could be an opportunity where we may be able to use some of our technology to help turn around a factory," said Albert Xie, head of GE's Ecomagination project in China, which develops environmentally-friendly business opportunities.

Last summer, Ma's NGO launched the Green Choice Alliance Programme where corporations commit not to take goods from suppliers who flout environmental regulations.

The aim is to give a competitive advantage when selling goods and stop firms having to obsess about low costs.

"If they only care about quality and pricing and nothing else, you push [suppliers] to cut corners," he said.

Multinationals are crucial to any genuine progress, Ma said.

Former Wal-Mart chief executive officer Lee Scott said in Beijing last year the firm would require suppliers to ensure the factories they buy from receive the highest ratings in audits of environmental and social practices by 2012.

"That is the game-changer," said Ma.

"If you are below legal discharge standards you are out of the game. Only by adopting it can you compete," Ma said.

Ma is realistic about the challenge of cleaning up China's pollution – "We still haven't seen the turning point," he said – but he believes there is a genuine desire for improvement.

"At the time I wrote my book, it was not just officials, many ordinary people believed we needed to get rich before we deal with our environmental problems," he said.

"Recently, things have changed," he said, adding a database like his would have been "unimaginable" only eight years ago.

Indeed, just the fact that green NGOs are allowed to organise – impossible for democracy or labour rights campaigners – indicates a real commitment.

Ma resists any comparison with environmental groups in eastern Europe at the end of the Soviet era, some of which acted as Trojan horses for nascent democratic movements.

"I am sure that it is a worry for the government," he said, nevertheless repeating his mantra of gradual change.

"[Foreigners] are observers, they want to see things changing faster. But to us, we are part of it. We need to make sure this thing does not sink into chaos," he said.