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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad