When 19-year-old Ma Jiaojiao was refused a blood test for lead poisoning by her parents, she attempted suicide by drinking pesticide.
A factory near Ma’s village in Baoji, Shaanxi province, had already been closed due to its suspected role in local lead poisoning. At least 615 children in the area were found to have excessive levels of lead in their blood, with 166 children recording concentrations of more than 250 milligrams of lead per liter of blood, well over the government limit of 100 mg/l. Government tests only covered children under 14, and Ma’s parents thought participation was unnecessary because of her age.
Anger spread through the village along with news of Ma’s suicide attempt. The next day, villagers stormed the factory.
The events in Shaanxi are evidence of growing environmental awareness among average citizens nationwide.
Throughout July and August, manufacturing plants were shut down across the country as residents in the surrounding areas demanded something be done about pollution. Targets included a cadmium plant in Henan, closed after being linked to two deaths from suspected cadmium poisoning, and a joint venture refinery and petrochemical plant in Guangdong, owned by Sinopec and Kuwait Petroleum Corp, relocated after protests from the local community.
The protests are coming from two distinct demographics. Rural residents take action when their concerns about pollution from factories in their midst are not addressed by local officials. For urban protestors, grievances are frequently a combination of health issues and more middle-class concerns such as property values. Such protests were evident in Shanghai in 2008, over the proposed route of a maglev train, and in Xiamen in 2007, over the location of a chemical plant.
Things have come to enough of a head that Beijing – conscious as ever about the need to preserve social stability – is paying attention to citizens’ concerns. In late July, it acted. Courts in Guizhou and Jiangsu province accepted two cases from the All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF), an NGO affiliated with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, against the local government land bureau in Qingzhen city, and a port container company in Wuxi, respectively.
While the cases have yet to be tried, the acceptance carries its own significance: Beijing is offering its citizens a legal framework in which their environmental concerns can be heard. The fact that the cases come from an NGO, even a government-backed one, suggests that the central authorities also are becoming more comfortable with civil society groups having a voice on environmental issues.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how effectively environmental regulations will be executed at the local level. If a region is economically prosperous, a local government may well address environmental concerns. In less prosperous areas, however, employment and economic growth may continue to be prioritized above all else.