The World of Chinese




China has a massive trash problem: Last year, headlines exploded with the news that Jiangcungo­u in Shaanxi province, a landfill as large as 100 football fields that was built to last until 2044, has already filled up— 25 years ahead of schedule.

To deal with the over 200 million tons of trash its citizens are producing each year, the government has turned to incinerati­on, with 428 waste incinerati­on plants in operation nationwide and 216 more to come as of April 2019. This solution, though, also triggered some of the biggest public demonstrat­ions the country has seen in the last 20 years: In 2009, thousands of protesters blockaded an urban management bureau in Guangzhou following media reports that a waste incinerati­on plant had caused a 20-fold increase in local cancer rates.

The Wuhu Ecological Center (WEC) is a non-government­al organizati­on based in Wuhu, Anhui province. Since it was establishe­d in 2009, it has campaigned for greater transparen­cy from businesses, waste management plants, and the government on pollution discharge. Its executive

officer Zhang Jingning speaks to TWOC about how the NGO continues its advocacy in the face of apathy from local authoritie­s and resistance—and sometimes violence—from polluting businesses.


I feel a sense of mission toward my work, but I don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it comes from my father, who is a village doctor. He likes to say he heals people. I heal the Earth.

Once you are in the middle of a job, there is more direct motivation. Once, we saw trucks on a provincial highway stopping to dump animal feces and dead poultry directly off of a bridge and into the river. When you see people recklessly creating pollution in front of you, it’s deeply unsettling.


We want to encourage the clean operation of waste incinerati­on plants by means of data transparen­cy. As mass incinerati­on becomes a trend, the government may overlook the environmen­tal impact. Transparen­cy is the basis of public participat­ion. We don’t know when that day will come, but our mission is to make it happen sooner.

It is difficult to claim credit for inciting change. We can only continue to write proposals, suggestion­s, and briefings. Sometimes we receive exciting feedback, such as at the “Two Sessions” [annual political congress in Beijing], when a representa­tive answered journalist­s’ questions using phrases from one of our reports: “Informatio­n transparen­cy is the warning light and alarm bell of the environmen­t.” Political actors are drawing from our work.


The government’s introducti­on of the pollution permit system in 2013 marked a new beginning, essentiall­y shifting the responsibi­lity of monitoring from the government to businesses and society at large.

There are primarily two government department­s involved: The Ministry of Housing and Urban-rural Developmen­t (MOHURD) is in charge of where the waste goes. They now think that waste incinerati­on plants are a convenient way to burn everything, a simple and crude approach.

The Ministry of Energy and Environmen­t (MEE) is responsibl­e for environmen­tal monitoring, but city or county-level branches have insufficie­nt ability to handle these issues, or simply lack conscienti­ousness. The MEE builds platforms, such as the pollution permit platform, or national pollution data platform, but these have many holes. The Environmen­tal Protection Law clearly states that key polluting companies must disclose discharge data, but the law does not specify which channels to use. The law also stipulates that the data should be open to the public, but again, it is vague.

When a business reports unusual discharge, that report is often not accessible to the public.

Generally, the attitude of government toward waste management is: Your job is to wipe my ass. Wipe it clean, and that’s enough.


The center has two main roles. One is policy advocacy, which

pushes for the introducti­on or revision of policies issued by the authoritie­s. The other part is identifyin­g problems one by one and patching them up. One is topdown, the other is bottom-up.

We raise issues that I’m sure the MEE is aware of, but whether or not they see it as a problem is another matter. We wrote cases for the Two Sessions and got in touch with representa­tives to bring them up, and the government responded to the tone of, “Thank you, the problem you pointed out exists and your descriptio­n of the problem is accurate. We have an environmen­tal governance plan, which should be implemente­d soon.” It was a stock response; I don’t think we actually convinced them.

Businesses have a similar attitude. For example, if we call and ask them why they didn’t publish a certain indicator, they will put it online for Quarter

One. But come Quarter Two, the indicator will be missing again. Two-thirds of waste incinerati­on plants in China are equipped with world-class equipment, but these facilities are poorly managed and still create pollution.

Neither government nor business has strong initiative. But this is also the value of an environmen­tal protection organizati­on: to make noise, to advocate for improvemen­t, to act as a social observer and watchdog.


When it comes to environmen­tal supervisio­n, the attitude of companies is to “Close the door and beat the dog”; in other words, to use violence to prevent you from monitoring them. We usually cannot go into factories, so we simply observe quietly from the outside. When we are discovered, we are sometimes threatened.

Another difficulty is securing evidence. We take a photo to prove pollution discharge, but a photo may not be enough; you need to monitor data. We can take samples, but our samples are not legally recognized by the government, because we are not an environmen­tal law enforcemen­t or official monitoring agency. Another example is stench—i can say that I smell it, but I have no way to prove that. You need an odor sniffer with special qualificat­ions.

The most damned difficult thing to obtain is evidence for toxic discharge at night, because it’s too dark for photograph­s. In 2016, we discovered trucks from a waste incinerati­on plant dumping fly ash [classified as a hazardous waste] in an empty field at night. We followed the activity, uncovered it, and even ignited public outrage at the issue. However, the company did not take responsibi­lity in the end, because we did not have a clear and complete video of the dumping.

Later, when I went to survey the pollution with my colleague, I was shocked to see that the discharge covered an area of several hundred thousand square meters, just two kilometers from the Yangtze River. Returning from that scene, my heart was incredibly heavy.


In the short term, I hope there will be a local seminar on environmen­tal co-governance with the government and NGOS. This will lend legitimacy to our organizati­on and help spread environmen­tal consciousn­ess. Now, we ask companies to disclose informatio­n, but there will be a turning point where companies seek us out and ask us to help them build environmen­tally sustainabl­e practices. That day hasn’t come yet, but I hope it will soon.

It is difficult for people working in public welfare to have a sense of accomplish­ment. But as long as we can keep food on the table with our basic salaries, we will stick to the work. The Wuhu Ecological Center has persisted for over ten years. This in itself has not been easy.

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 ??  ?? Zhang explains sorting principles in a waste
Customers admire new hairstyles at a separation salon in Ligezhuang, 1984 workshop
Zhang explains sorting principles in a waste Customers admire new hairstyles at a separation salon in Ligezhuang, 1984 workshop
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Children learn about the protection of water sources in a field activity

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