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May 21, 2009 5:34 PM

A legal crusader against polluters in China finds NW allies

Posted by Kristi Heim

Jingjing Zhang works for the first and only non-governmental legal aid organization focused on environmental issues in China. It's her job to go after polluters in court.

Zhang, litigation director for the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, is in Seattle for a few days, where she's giving a lecture at the University of Washington tonight and meeting with local organizations including EarthCorps, Earthjustice, Sightline and RDI. She was invited to UW as the Severyns-Ravenholt lecturer, named for Marjorie Severyns Ravenholt, a UW graduate who chronicled the development of Asia as a foreign correspondent. Zhang was a Yale World Fellow in 2008 and a visiting scholar at the Yale China Law Center.


COURTESY OF JINGJING ZHANG

Jingjing Zhang, one of China's top public interest lawyers, is an outspoken environmental advocate. She argues cases on behalf of pollution victims across the country.

At 39, she has been an outspoken environmental advocate for more than 10 years. She won a landmark legal victory against a company in 2005 when she represented farmers in Fujian Province, where a chemical factory released Chromium and killed their bamboo trees, took away their livelihood and made them sick.

It was the biggest environmental class action lawsuit in the country, representing more than 1,000 people. At every hearing, hundreds of farmers would show up in the courtroom, she said. Some had left their homes in the countryside days before and ridden to the city in a rented van.

The plaintiffs won compensation for damage to their livelihoods but not for their health.
Still it showed the power of the law could be wielded to protect citizens.

"We are facing this environmental disaster," Zhang said. "If you go to Beijing from the plane you see the whole city covered by yellow and brown air. This is our capital city. If you can't see clean air here, how can you expect industrial cities to be?"

Among NGOs in China, environmental groups are the most active, and public support for environmental protection is growing. The center offers free legal aid to the public and a telephone hotline for people suffering effects of pollution.

Chinese environmental law is actually very strong, Zhang said. "The problem is we have laws on paper. We lack implementation and enforcement. We lack action."

Chinese officials think clamping down too hard will sacrifice jobs, she said. Politicians fear losing control and suspect civil society groups of threatening the government. "They misunderstand," she said. "Our role is a bridge between citizens and the government."

Zhang is now pursuing a case against a huge state-owned iron and copper mining company in Guangdong Province, where heavy metal pollution has leached into groundwater and soil, polluting the river, fish and rice crops. The village has seen a surge in cancers of the liver and digestive system. Of 400 residents, 28 have died of such cancers since 1996 and many more have the disease, she said. The problem has likely spread beyond Guangdong, as rice is sold to other towns and provinces.

Taking on such entrenched business and government interests is a risky endeavor, she acknowledged. Her name Jingjing means be careful, the same characters in a Chinese idiom that translates: "When you walk on thin ice, you must be very careful."

It was given to her by her father, who was persecuted in the 1950s after he spoke out against the government.

But defending the environment isn't a task for the meek, and pollution is an issue without boundaries, she said. "Meeting people who share the same concerns, I feel I'm not working alone."

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