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Chinese lawyers demand action to clear smog

A group of lawyers has filed a lawsuit against the Chinese government for failing to prevent the severe smog that has covered the north over the past week, underlining the discontent voiced by tens of millions of citizens online.

Beijing and many other cities in north China are entering their sixth day running of pollution “red alerts”, which have closed down schools, roads and factories. More than 350 flights were grounded in Beijing on Tuesday due to poor visibility.

“Progress on air pollution has been lots of talk and hardly any action for the past few years,” wrote Cheng Hai, a Beijing-based lawyer, in the preface to the lawsuit. He is one of five lawyers bringing a case against the local governments of Beijing, Tianjin and Heibei — three major regions in the smog-afflicted north — for failing to implement their own environmental laws. 

“This is the first time that lawyers have used an administrative lawsuit to protest the government’s treatment of air pollution,” said Wu Qiang, a former lecturer in politics at Beijing’s Tsinghua University who writes on political protests. “It marks a new stage in the environmental movement.

“Pollution affects everyone, across different classes, different backgrounds — and people are becoming more aware of the issue.”

The lawyers’ letter was shared on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, but several posts have since been deleted. These posts can still be seen on FreeWeibo.com, a website that tries to save censored Weibo posts before they are taken down.

“Severe pollution” is one of the top ten trending topics on Weibo, with over 230 million readers.

Links to several local media articles of the letter can no longer be opened, suggesting that these articles have also been deleted.

A popular documentary on air pollution, called “Under the Dome”, was pulled by censors last year after racking up over 160 million views.

“Outside of protests, there is still a lot of room for the environmental laws to be implemented,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) in Beijing, a non-governmental organisation. 

© Reuters

Although China’s environmental laws ask for city governments to compel polluting firms to release public data on their emissions, this has not been implemented since the law came in force at the start of the year, Mr Ma said. 

“The cost of implementing real-time emissions disclosure would be much less than the cost of restricting the number of cars on the road,” argued Mr Ma. Beijing is currently halving the number of vehicles allowed on its roads, a usual procedure during heavy smog alerts.

Mr Ma hopes that a recent rise in online reporting of pollution incidents by citizens can put pressure on governments and companies to clean up.

IPE has launched a “micro-reporting” app which allows its 3m users to access real-time air pollution data from the 3,000 companies that do comply with the emissions disclosure law, and to post complaints on Weibo or to the relevant government ministry.

But it is likely that the court will reject the lawsuit, said Qiao Mu, professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

“As in previous cases, anything related to politics, information disclosure, censorship et cetera, they have usually rejected,” Mr Qiao said, adding that details of how Beijing’s anti-pollution budget is spent are never disclosed.

The central government is trying to move the country’s electricity supply from coal power to renewables, and is slowly allowing heavy industry in the north-east with overcapacity to close down. But experts reckon that it will take at a couple of decades for the country to reach international standards for air pollution.

On red alert days, and on special occasions such as the Beijing Olympics, local governments close smoke-belching factories and halt construction. But these measures deal a blow to the government’s much-watched GDP figures.

“The only outlet for the public now is to take advantage of social media platforms and the media to impose pressure on the government, and in some cases protests are even allowed on the streets,” Mr Qiao said. “But overall the policy direction is not right for fixing the air problem.”

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang and Sherry Fei Ju

Via FT