The perils of environmental activism in China

Wu Lihong.jpg
Image source: Reuters

I caught a snippet on BBC World the other day which typifies the incoherent approach of the Chinese to the environment. The public pronouncements from the centre convey the message that the government is cracking down on environmental vandalism. The reality of the situation in the provinces is quite different as the new and increasingly powerful industrial class thumbs its nose at Beijing. Thus, a man like Wu Lihong, can be named among China’s top 10 environmentalists and feted at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2005 after his work drew attention to the fact chemical factories were pouring effluent into Lake Taihu, and be jailed for 3 years last month for allegedly extorting $7200 from businesses by threatening to report them for environmental crimes.

The reality of the situation is that local businessmen in towns around the lake closed ranks against him. When Wu was arrested in his hometown of Yixing in April, he was preparing to travel to Beijing to appeal to the authorities there. The trial was a farcical affair, where no witnesses were called to testify, and police statements went unchallenged. Wu’s wife also claims that he was tortured during five straight days of interrogation. Needless to say, since his arrest, the pollution at the lake has got worse, the local authorities having to turn off tap water for 2 million local residents because of a blue-green algae created by discharge from the chemical plants.