The Year of the (Green) Dragon: China's Burgeoning Environmental Movement The Year of the (Green) Dragon: China's Burgeoning Environmental Movement
The Planet

The Year of the (Green) Dragon: China's Burgeoning Environmental Movement

by Amy Westervelt

January 3, 2013

The most important environmental story coming out of China this year is not the treatment of workers at the iPad plant, or whatever journalistic ethics were compromised in the reporting of it, but the meteoric rise of grassroots environmental groups in the country. Where larger U.S. organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have failed to gain much traction, local Chinese groups are beginning to affect meaningful change. 

"Green Hunan is a grassroots organization in Central China," he says. "They are promoting a volunteer network with eight monitoring stations, sixty-three monitoring points and 36 volunteers. On September 17, 2012 in the course of river monitoring, Brother Mao, one of the volunteers, found red sewage coming from the chemical plants located in the area [see photo]. So he took photos with his cell phone and wrote a microblog (Twitter in China). Soon there were 4000 retweets and 2000 replies. The situation was then reported by the local media."

Zhong says the media coverage prompted the local environmental protection board to investigate, and they closed the factory. The factory chairman had to make a public apology. 

Green Hunan is one of about 30 small, grassroots groups working with IPE to help keep its database and maps up to date. In turn IPE lets these groups know when a company in their geographic region has a violation of the national environmental laws. 

"There has started to be a lot of movement around the data piece," McDonald says. "The exciting thing about Ma Jun’s project is that in addition to poorly behaving companies getting a black mark next to their names on IPE's water pollution database, hundreds to thousands of companies have contacted him to say what can we do to get off this list. Already something like 600 companies have taken action, which has led IPE to take their name off the list. The database and maps have turned out to be much stronger tools than anyone could have imagined."

Indeed, data collection and monitoring seems to be central to the success of China's burgeoning environmental movement. Zhong sums up the typical trajectory of a campaign thusly: "First, you collect pollution information from public channels, then you list a company on the China Water Pollution Map, then you enlarge your influence through media campaigns and NGO networking campaigns, then you initiate Green Choice consumer awareness activities focused on a specific brand, then you might work with an out-of-country partner to further pressure the company, and then you request that the company participate in an auditing and monitoring program."

So you start with gathering hard data on the ground, then share that information widely, you get the media to broadcast your issue, and the public pressure incentivizes movement from both the local government and the company in question. Not bad for a grassroots movement. 
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The Year of the (Green) Dragon: China's Burgeoning Environmental Movement