China rights lawyers target toxic smog

People exercising in the smog on a polluted day in Zhengzhou, Henan province, earlier this month. Lawyer Yu Wensheng hopes that filing lawsuits against the authorities over China's bad air will keep the issue in the public eye.
People exercising in the smog on a polluted day in Zhengzhou, Henan province, earlier this month. Lawyer Yu Wensheng hopes that filing lawsuits against the authorities over China's bad air will keep the issue in the public eye.PHOTO: REUTERS

They file 'mostly symbolic' suits to keep issue alive amid concerns about info suppression

BEIJING • Toxic smog has found itself in the dock in China, as the authorities are taken to court over a problem that has choked entire regions, put public health at risk and forced closure of schools and roads.

At the helm is a group of human rights lawyers who, despite increasing government hostility to their work on some of China's most sensitive cases, say popular feeling is behind them when it comes to pollution that is literally off the charts.

"Chinese people aren't too concerned about societal problems and things that aren't happening to them personally, but this issue is different: Everyone is a victim and is personally influenced by breathing polluted air," lawyer Yu Wensheng told Agence France-Presse.

He is among a group of six lawyers who began filing suits last month after a choking cloud of haze descended on China's north-east, affecting some 460 million people. The campaign comes amid growing public anger over China's bad air.

However, there are concerns that the authorities might be trying to muzzle online discussion on the issue and quell discontent by suppressing information on air quality.

Last month, a week of thick haze forced cities across the north-east to go on "red alert", closing schools, factories and work sites and taking around half of vehicles off the roads.

As visibility dropped and airports cancelled flights, people took to social media to vent. But comments about the heavy smog quickly began disappearing from the Web. Last Wednesday, the Meteorological Administration ordered local weather bureaus to stop issuing smog alerts, which the authorities said was to improve coordination.

A document submitted by Mr Yu's associate accused the government of "severe dereliction of duty" in pollution management and sacrificing human health in pursuit of "toxic GDP growth". The lawyers have little hope of winning or successfully filing their cases and are viewing the suits as "mostly symbolic", Mr Yu said. The document asked for the authorities to publish an apology online and in the local state-run newspaper for a week, and hand over compensation of 65 yuan (S$13.50) for the price of his smog mask and 9,999 yuan for emotional damages.

He hopes the suits will help keep the issue in the public eye. Notably, China can clear the skies for important events such as the 2008 Olympics, but does so selectively due to the high economic cost. "They can do it, but they do not," Mr Yu said.

Lawyer Ma Wei, who is suing the city of Tianjin, said he has received no official response weeks after the court was legally required to issue one. Instead, he said, he was pressured to retract the suit. "I refused and told them, 'I'm doing this so that you can breathe clean air, too'."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'China rights lawyers target toxic smog'. Print Edition | Subscribe