Fri, Jul 13, 2007 - Page 9 News List

The man who wants China to clean up its act

A voice in the wilderness is forcing China to heed growing international concers over the environment

By Jonathan Watts  /  THE OBSERVER , BEIJING

He is not as well known as former US vice president Al Gore, but among green campaigners, no one has a bigger role in tackling climate change than Ma Jun (馬軍). As China's economic growth races on at breakneck speed and with more dirty, coal-burning power plants coming on line each year, the world's most populous nation will soon overtake the US as the biggest greenhouse gas emitter.

Ma, 39, has emerged as the powerful voice of a budding green movement that is forcing industry and China's tightly run state to be more accountable for the long-term consequences of their rush to get rich.

He founded the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which is among those leading the charge to clean up the air and rivers of China, a monumental task. Pollution is leaking beyond its borders. Sand storms caused by desertification blast across the Korea Peninsula and Japan all the way over the Pacific to the US. And as the dump for 50 billion tonnes of effluent annually, the rivers' toxic discharges threaten marine life hundreds of miles beyond China's seas.

The country's environmental importance was apparent last month when US President George W. Bush said he would not sign up to ambitious new goals to prevent global warming unless China was involved. Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) rejected binding targets, but said China would reduce emissions voluntarily and has unveiled its first plan to deal with climate change. There is even talk that after years of red politics and black capitalism China may yet turn green.

Ma has cause for optimism. The former journalist switched to activism in 1997 after hearing Chinese hydro-engineers boast that the Yellow River was a model of water management, even though it was so over-dammed and exploited that it failed to reach the sea on more than 200 days each year. That inspired Ma to write an influential book warning of an impending crisis.

There was not much an ordinary citizen could do then, when green campaigners were considered a threat to a government fixated with economic growth regardless of the environmental cost. But much has changed. Since 2003, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) has done more than any leader to press the environmental case. Five years ago, there were fewer than 50 registered green non-governmental organizations in the country. Today there are almost 3,000.

Ma's institute's online China Water Pollution Map -- www.ipe.org.cn -- names and shames the worst offending regions and companies. It is a symbol of a new kind of social activism in China: pragmatic rather than idealistic, and relying more on maps and data than votes and speeches to lobby for change.

If polluting companies want their names removed from the map they have to accept an environmental audit from a third party and act on any problems. This has prompted a response by 30 companies, mostly multinationals. Six have already agreed to audits. Among them, Panasonic Battery in Shanghai which is refitting its factory's water system.

"It is not just because of us," Ma said. "But it is really good. They sent a big delegation to our office to explain their actions and they have invited us to go and check their plant."

Not everyone is as receptive. Ma says Pepsi, General Motors and five or six British firms are among those who have not responded. There are 80 multinationals among the 5,500 violators listed, but they face the fiercest criticism.

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