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Attorney Alex Wang

NRDC has been working in China for more than a decade, helping address the environmental issues that have come hand-in-hand with its booming economic development. The problems are formidable -- skyrocketing energy demand and global warming emissions, widespread toxic chemical contamination and heavily polluted cities. In addition to working at the government level to find solutions to China's environmental challenges, NRDC is also helping to boost grassroots environmental clout in China. Attorney Alex Wang is head of NRDC's Environmental Law Project in Beijing, China.

When did you arrive in Beijing?

I came to China on a Fulbright fellowship in the fall of 2004. I joined NRDC the following year to start a new project on environmental law and public participation. Before our official office space opened, I was working mostly from home. There are also a lot of internet cafes in Beijing these days.

What's it like to be working in China now?

It's an extremely exciting time. If you visit China, you cannot help but be boggled by what's going on. You can feel that something really big is happening. It's the scale of all the construction, the incredible speed of change, people being so much more open and exposed to ideas from the outside. And at the same time, you notice this huge disparity. BMWs and skyscrapers are filling the cities, yet many people are still living on well below $100 a month.

What's the state of the environmental movement in China?

Right now there are nearly 3,000 environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in China. But the movement is very young, the groups are small and they don't have much funding. Most groups are just a few people who get together because they want to do something like plant trees, or because they notice a river is polluted and want to raise awareness. You do have a smaller number of more sophisticated groups. The oldest officially registered environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, was established in 1994. They put out China's first public-initiated annual report on the state of the environment in 2006. There are groups like the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, which has been around since 1998, engaged in extremely complex public interest legal work. And you also have leading environmentalists like Ma Jun, who's put together a very sophisticated website mapping water pollution across China.

Was there any particular event that galvanized peoples' environmental consciousness in China, like when the Cuyahoga River burst into flames here?

This hasn't been driven by a single event. My sense is that along with the rapid development of the past few decades, people have seen the environment around them get worse and worse. And as their standard of living has increased, people want to do something about it. They have started to become more interested in a clean environment, in nature and the outdoors. And now they have the space to form these groups and act on their concerns.

What are people's primary concerns?

Pollution, of course, is the big issue. You can't look outside at the Beijing air and not think it's a big issue. People are concerned with the safety of the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat. People are also becoming more interested in nature and the outdoors. If you go to a wild place in China, you used to see only Western backpackers carrying a Lonely Planet guide. Now you see Chinese people out there, getting into the outdoors. Some of the first organized environmental advocacy efforts were campaigns to save rare species, such as the Tibetan antelope and the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey.

Aren't people reluctant to speak out about environmental problems?

I think the environment has been a safe space for these groups to develop. People don't think of it as political, it's something everyone can get behind.

What are you trying to accomplish in China?

We're working with NGOs and lawyers in China to increase public participation and the use of law to defend the environment. Environmental law is relatively new in China -- a lot of times the laws are very vague and they don't have any sort of enforcement provisions. So, for example, the laws give you a right to participate in a decision that affects your community, but there are no clear consequences if there's no public hearing in the first place or if your comments are completely ignored.

We're hoping our expertise can help these fledgling environmental groups build their capacity to create change. We're bringing the NOs together, so the more established groups can teach the newer groups about what their rights are under the law, what say do they have about projects going on in their communities, how to access the courts, how to participate in a hearing, how to get information from the government. We're putting together a suite of resources that NGOs and the public can use day to day. For example, we're creating a web-based resource of plain language explanations of Chinese public participation laws and policies to ensure that the public has access to the rules of the game.

We're also training lawyers and judges in environmental law and working with Chinese experts on approaches to creating a public interest litigation system in China.

What kind of environmental laws are on the books? How old are they?

Around 1979, China passed an omnibus environmental protection law. Then in the following years a series of more specific laws came about, to protect air, water, wildlife, grasslands. But these were just framework laws they kind of threw up there, with the idea that they would amend and supplement them later.

What are the major challenges China's environmental movement faces?

It's really hard to stop a polluter from polluting. The laws exist, but implementation is not good, and there's also a lot of local protectionism, especially in poor areas. You might get some compensation for pollution victims, but shutting down the worst polluters or requiring them to install pollution control equipment is hard to do. This is difficult work in any country, but the problem is particularly acute in China. We're working with Chinese lawyers and NGOs to develop ways to expose violations of the law and to improve enforcement.

Another problem is just getting hold of information about what's going on. If the information exists, and you can access it, it's often not reliable. There's a lot of gaming of the system, you know, people will turn on their pollution control equipment only when they know an inspection is coming, or they'll dump at night, that sort of thing. They've found secret underground pipes that factories use to divert pollution far downstream for discharge. We're working with one of the more forward-thinking provinces -- Jiangsu Province -- to refine their system of publicizing factory environmental performance. We want to help ensure that this information is reliable and scientifically based. We also want to work with big buyers in the United States -- the "big box stores" -- to direct their business toward the better environmental performers.

Is there a case that stands out in your mind as illustrating the challenges China faces?

Local protectionism is a big problem. Recently there was a case of a lead smelter that had been violating standards for 10 years, and it only came to attention because hundreds of kids in the area were found to have high lead levels in their blood and had to be hospitalized. The local government was benefiting from the factory's operations so they didn't do anything about the problem for years. There are probably thousands of cases like this across China. The factory was only shut down when the case gained national attention and the State EPA got involved. The positive side of this is that the central government found out about this situation and took action. The problem, though, is that China's SEPA does not have enough manpower or resources to handle most of these sorts of cases, and the capacity to address these problems at the local level is still weak.

Do you get out into the field and see some of these factories?

On these field visits you see a lot of varying environmental conditions. Earlier this year we saw a petroleum refinery that was extremely polluted. In the entire surrounding area I could barely breathe, we were all holding our noses. It's hard when you see how poor people are and how they feel that environmental degradation is the price they need to pay for jobs and economic growth.

How are local people responding to the idea of public participation in defending the environment?

There's a lot of energy out there. We created a citizens' guide to environmental rights, a booklet for regular people, written in layman's terms, with lots of pictures, telling people what they can do if they see an environmental problem, how to go to court, what to ask at a hearing, things like that. We distributed it in six cities, and at every stop about 200 to 300 people just swarmed the table, and they each had specific questions about problems they were having.

What other encouraging signs have you seen?

We've been working with local partners on a draft regulation for public participation, and the response we're getting has been really encouraging from all levels. From the state, from academics, from NGOs, local governments, judges -- there's a lot of support for this. We have visiting experts who have worked on these issues in numerous countries around the world and they are all without exception amazed by the level of the discourse and the high energy devoted to these issues. And even though the scale of the problem is so huge, and it's so underfunded, there's a lot of optimism in the air. People are trying to change things, they want a cleaner place to live. It's really exciting for us, being right here at the beginning of something.

last revised 12/21/2006

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