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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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. Meanwhile, in Appalachia, mining companies dish out licence plates and stickers saying: Shoot a tree hugger.

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while Club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.