In this second year of a sustained crackdown on civil society activists and organizations in China, the environmental sector has been one of the few bright spots. On January 1 of this year, the newly revised Environmental Protection Law loosened restrictions on organizations that could sue polluters on behalf of the public interest (so-called environmental public interest lawsuits) to include qualified civil society organizations. Then in late February, Chai Jing, a former CCTV investigative reporter, released her documentary "Under the Dome" about China's smog crisis. That documentary immediately went viral getting hundreds of millions of clicks just a few days after going online.
Now we can add yet another example to this list. About two-and-a-half weeks ago, on October 29, 2015, the Nanping Intermediate People's Court in China's southeastern Fujian province issued a judgement in favor of two grassroots NGO plantiffs: Beijing-based Friends of Nature and Fujian Green Home. These two NGOs filed the lawsuit on the same day the Environmental Protection Law went into effect. The defendant was a quarry company that had engaged in illegal mining and damaged the surrounding forest. The company owners were ordered to pay fines totaling 1.46 million yuan (US$230,000) in compensation for 'loss of environmental benefits' and legal costs, and given five months to restore the forest to its original state or face further fines.
Some may take exception to calling this a landmark case and they would have a point. The term "landmark" can be abused and overused. What constitutes a landmark case? Is this really a landmark case given that the polluter is a merely a local quarry company, not a large state-owned enterprise? Is it a landmark case given that we still are unsure if the court ruling will be enforced by local authorities, and if the polluters will pay the fine and clean up the forest as ordered? Is it a landmark case given that other significant cases have preceded it? As Stanley Lubman points out in his very informative blog, an earlier "groundbreaking" lawsuit was filed last October by an environmental association in Taizhou City in China's eastern Jiangsu province against companies that were dumping waste acid into local rivers. The intermediate court in Taizhou ended up fining the defendants U.S.$26 million — the largest ever in a public interest lawsuit in China and much larger than the fine levied in the Fujian case.
In an excellent article in The Diplomat, Scott Wilson, who has researched citizen participation in environmental governance, writes about the Taizhou case that it should be seen as an example of the Chinese government seeking to control the environmental litigation process. The Taizhou environmental association that filed the lawsuit - the Taizhou Environmental Protection Federation (TEPF)- had been founded as a government-organized NGO (GONGO) that same year (the name is a dead giveaway as a local affiliate of the All-China Environmental Federation, a GONGO established with the blessing of the Ministry of Environmental Protection). The irony was that TEPF was able to file this lawsuit under a recently-amended Civil Procedure Law which allowed "relevant organizations" to file environmental public lawsuits for the first time. Yet under the newly-revised Environmental Protection Law, which only allows NGOs with five years experience in environmental protection work to file such lawsuits, TEPF would not have qualified. Pushing the irony further, Friends of Nature, a grassroots, independent environmental NGO established 20 years ago, filed a lawsuit in Taizhou against a chemical company involved in the same pollution case, but the local court refused to hear the case, saying Friends of Nature had no standing to initiate the lawsuit even though it had 19 years more experience than TEPF. The Taizhou case highlights the privileged position occupied by GONGOs which are used by the Chinese government to manage social and environmental issues while appearing to be tolerant of NGO-type organizations.
In this context, the Fujian lawsuit is a landmark case because two independent environmental NGOs with no connection to the government managed to win in a country where the Communist Party seeks increasingly to guide civil society along the correct path. It will be a case that other independent environmental NGOs can build on as a model of, and inspiration for, grassroots activism. Friends of Nature, in particular, is known to many as one of the first independent environmental NGOs, founded by Liang Congjie and friends (Liang Xiaoyan, Wang Lixiong, and Yang Dongping) in 1995 and has been involved in many of the major citizen-led actions on behalf of the environment in China over the last two decades. It's a shame that Liang Congjie, who died at the age of 78 in 2010, did not live to see this day. He would have been proud of the organization he helped to start.