Would you swim in China's rivers?

A burgeoning popular interest in China's ecological problems has led to citizens trying to win greater oversight of environmental decision-making.

At the start of June, an ominous, if faintly absurd, tale appeared in China's state-owned Global Times newspaper. Buddhists in north-west Beijing had released thousands of live carp and turtles into the Beisha River – a ritual honouring Guanyin, the “Goddess of Mercy”, often accompanied by prayers for longevity – but the fish and reptiles had promptly died en masse from the pollution. The short news report described an “odorous river… infested with flies and rotting fish”. The capital’s water authorities, it added, had “blamed residents” for the disaster.

The next day, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) announced that pollution in China’s countryside had continued to worsen in 2012, as industry and mining expanded without adequate protections – even in the face of legislative efforts. “With industrialisation, urbanisation and the modernisation of agriculture, the situation for the rural environment has become grim,” the MEP said in its annual report, in an admission that will have surprised few.

China’s cities have been rocked by increasingly noisy and networked protests about environmental problems, just as rural pollution has intensified. Earlier this year, a former leading member of the Communist Party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs said that pollution had replaced land disputes as the leading catalyst for “mass incidents”, or social unrest. Said Chen Jiping: “If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm?” His argument is sound – and people have not remained calm. But neither have their protests been as unfocused, as mob-like or irrational, as the label “mass incident” might imply.

Earlier this year, Chinese microbloggers posted challenges to government officials to swim in their local polluted rivers. One entrepreneur in eastern China offered his city’s environment chief more than £20,000 to swim for 20 minutes in a local waterway – an offer that he illustrated with pictures of the foul river teeming with rubbish. The official declined. Similarly creative approaches include that of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which compiles publicly available water and air pollution information into online maps, or the enterprising engineers of FLOAT Beijing, who attached tiny Bluetooth-enabled pollution sensors onto kites, traditionally flown by hobbyists in the capital.

These innovations point to one of China’s best hopes: that it might harness public participation to help address its ecological woes. Such an approach would not be unprecedented: the MEP has periodically called on civil-society groups to help implement its laws and regulations, which are so often disregarded by local officials focused on growth at all costs and compromised by their close relationships with polluters. The government has also introduced Open Government Information Regulations that – on paper, if not in practice – give citizens the right to know about hazardous pollution in their area and the government approval process for environmentally sensitive projects.

Perhaps most prominently, a storm last year on Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) forced Beijing – and now some 73 other cities – to release real-time information about airborne concentrations of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, which penetrates deep into the lungs. Citing this example, the director at a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a prestigious government think-tank, wrote recently that “government, non-government organisations and industry… should seize the opportunity provided by the growing popular involvement, and promote a civil society that stands up for the environment.”

This burgeoning popular involvement has emerged through a number of important Chinese campaigns, mainly over the past decade – some of them successful, others less so – led by journalists, NGOs, legal defenders, urban and rural activists. In every case, citizens have tried to win greater oversight of environmental decision-making – to become involved in building a greener China. But whether the leadership takes that same lesson from the tale of the dead carp is yet to be seen. Perhaps somebody should check if the official in charge of the Beisha River fancies a dip?

Sam Geall’s "China and the Environment: The Green Revolution" is published by Zed Books (2013). He is executive editor of chinadialogue.net and teaches human geography of China at University of Oxford.

A fisherman working on Chaohu Lake, which is filled with cyanobacteria. Photograph: Getty Images
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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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