Environmental Activist Arrested in Hangzhou; Movement Still Hampered by Legal and Financial Restrictions

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The environmental movement in China received a setback in late October with the arrest of Hangzhou activist Tan Kai, founder of the monitoring group Green Watch. While charges are unclear, Kai and five other members of the group were brought in for questioning after opening a bank account for the not-yet-registered organization, according to the New York-based organization Human Rights in China. Chinese law allows fundraising only for officially registered groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The five others were sent home after questioning, but Tan Kai was held under criminal detention.

This arrest comes at a time when environmental groups in China have been pushing the envelope of activism and generally enjoying considerable freedoms compared to other sectors of civil society. This is the first time since the environmental movement started ten years ago that a Chinese environmental activist has been arrested, against a backdrop of violent protests over polluting industries in Zhejiang that have made the local government more sensitive.

Despite significant achievements and development in recent years, China’s grassroots environmental movement is still hampered by restrictive laws and government surveillance of organizing activities, especially at the provincial level. On the one hand, the central government encourages NGO activity and foreign involvement, recognizing that solving the country’s severe environmental problems will require efforts at every level of society. On the other hand, existing legal frameworks and provincial officials’ suspicion of civil society have set up roadblocks for effective organization.

This contradiction is apparent from the grassroots to the government level. The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) lacks both funds to carry out its own programs and administrative power to enforce its regulations. In the absence of adequate funding, it is forced to rely on foreign donations and foreign investments for many of its programs. Even its main environmental outreach and educational offices are located in the Sino-Japanese Friendship Centre for Environmental Protection, a building donated to SEPA by the Japanese government.

Further obstacles exist at the grassroots level, where environmental groups are not permitted to fundraise until they officially register with the Chinese government, a lengthy and costly process that is enough to weed out most groups. Even when an organization does gain official status, it has difficulty fundraising, as there are no tax incentives in place to encourage donations to NGOs. This means that virtually all activity must be supported to some degree by international foundations, governments, corporations, and donors. This international cooperation is limited as well, as media and information exchange—particularly in the case of news leaving China—is tightly monitored. Among the six activists brought in for questioning last week was Lai Jinbiao, who spent a month in detainment this spring for “illegally providing intelligence overseas.”

In the absence of strong environmental laws, and with little effective means to organize, many rural residents have resorted to direct action protests as their environments have deteriorated in recent years. In April, villagers of Huaxi, in Zhejiang Province, rioted in the street, violently shutting down a nearby chemical plant after unsuccessfully petitioning governments from the local to the national level for violations that were leaving their water undrinkable, killing their crops, and deforming their children. This inspired another protest in the nearby city of Xinchang, where, in July 2005, thousands of villagers battled authorities over a pharmaceutical ingredient plant they wanted shut down for polluting water and contaminating land. Tan Kai and his environmental group were reported to have visited Huaxi, which would have given local officials reason to worry about repeat violence coming from his group.

The arrest of Tan Kai will likely not help pacify the growing unrest in the countryside over deteriorating environmental conditions. Environmental groups such as his provide a crucial constructive means for Chinese citizens to vent frustrations and give voice to lesser-heard issues. As more people rise to defend their need for a cleaner environment, only a strong civil society will effectively ease the growing social tensions over environmental issues. In pledging to build a “harmonious” society, Chinese authorities at all levels of government will need to put words into action, revising obsolete laws and clearing obstacles to the sound development of NGOs.