A Savvy Litigator Takes on China's Polluters

Spotlight on a Scholar, Centerpoint, July-August 2009

Jul 01, 2009

For decades, China's government has pushed for economic growth, but Chinese citizens have paid a high price for that rapid development in the form of severe pollution from various industries.

Air and water pollution and deforestation are among the environmental hazards rampant in China, "yet access to clean air and safe drinking water are needed for survival," said Jingjing Zhang, litigation director for the Legal Center for Pollution Victims in Beijing. She recently spent a month in residence at the Wilson Center as a public policy scholar with the China Environment Forum.

Many victims of environmental pollution in China are poor villagers, precisely the people Zhang seeks to help. As a public interest lawyer, Zhang and her team largely do pro bono work, thanks to support from the international community, including foundations and NGOs. By protecting ordinary citizens who may not otherwise have recourse, Zhang is making an impact. She said, "I use litigation to help protect the environment and, at the same time, I'm pursuing the rule of law to protect people's rights."

Most of her cases involve suing a powerful industry: a power company, chemical plant, paper mill, or tannery among them. Three years ago, Zhang and her team won the first successful environmental class-action suit in China against a chemical factory that was dumping chromium in the local water supply. More than 1,600 villagers benefited from the sizeable settlement. As she fought valiantly to protect a community against pollution that was causing health damage, the case earned her the nickname of China's Erin Brockovich.

In another landmark case following the first-ever public hearing related to an environmental issue in China, Zhang's team successfully sued two governmental agencies. Zhang and her team do not win every case, but she said each case has an impact on the government, local industry, and the community by educating them about environmental problems and presenting the legal options available.

While she admitted not experiencing personal threat, Zhang said she does feel pressure from the government, judges, and other lawyers, given the controversial work she pursues.

"The biggest challenge for us is there's no independent judiciary in China," said Zhang, "and courts are reluctant to enforce environmental law." She said most courts refuse to take on pollution and other controversial cases.

Zhang came to Washington in June to learn about the new administration's environmental policy and prospects for U.S.-China cooperation. Zhang said it was encouraging that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited China and modified the discussion from a heavy emphasis on human rights, which the United States has used as a critical benchmark for many years, to give more attention to climate change and other environmental issues. Zhang also plans to network with U.S. environmental litigators and NGOs, hoping to cultivate collaboration between international and Chinese NGOs on issues related to environmental protection.

Zhang said she supports this new phase in U.S. policy toward China. "We need an alternative to make both governments want to collaborate," she said. "The environment should be that subject."

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