China Environmental News Digest

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Monday, November 13, 2006

China: Suing for the Environment

Newsweek.com
Environmentalists have found an all-American way to challenge the worst polluters—class-action lawsuits.
By Sarah Schafer
Newsweek International

Nov. 20, 2006 issue - Earlier this year, villagers in Xiping, in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, scored an unprecedented victory in a country still struggling to build a sound legal system. With the help of the Legal Center for Pollution Victims—a prominent nongovernmental organization in Beijing—they filed a U.S.-style class-action lawsuit against a chemical factory they claimed was polluting the local river and ruining their mushroom and cabbage harvests. Needing evidence, activists asked the villagers to collect samples of the greenish water near the chemical plant and to shoot photographs of dead bamboo and other plants.

The locals did so, and their efforts paid off. This spring a provincial court ordered the factory to pay about $85,000 in property damages to the farmers who had joined the suit. With more than 1,700 plaintiffs, it was the largest environmental class-action lawsuit in China's history and a huge success for the lawyers at the Center. "Our work is very practical and full of results," says Xu Kezhu, a lawyer who worked on the case. "We have confidence we will win more and more cases."

Chinese environmentalists are increasingly using such group lawsuits to rein in the country's worst polluters. They represent a small but growing number of the 2,000 environmental lawsuits filed each year, according to lawyers and legal scholars. Though they are not the same as American class actions (partly because people who are not named as original plaintiffs cannot claim compensation, or join the "class" after the lawsuit is adjudicated), they are similar, and many people still use "class action" to describe them. A 1991 Chinese law made it legal for people with environmental grievances to bring these types of suits—as long as they did not sue the government itself. This opening gave China's environmental movement—which has always been given a bit more leeway by Beijing—a powerful new method to further their cause.

The Legal Center for Pollution Victims is the main organization pushing class-action suits. The Center, located at the Beijing University of Politics and Law but funded by international donors, was founded in 1999 by a lawyer named Wang Cangfa. Wang now has 10 full-time employees and more than 200 volunteers across the country. Wang's center trains lawyers and judges to recognize international standards of environmental protection, publicizes big cases, and makes policy recommendations to the leadership.

Lawyers at the Center say class-action suits are critical to helping victims of pollution, most of whom are poor. Because there's a dearth of qualified environmental lawyers in China, and because the plaintiffs tend to be large in number, class-action lawsuits are a good way to conserve money and resources. The Center has accepted more than 80 cases since it opened—and Wang says, "We win a lot more than we lose now."

But there are limits to bringing these large suits in China. For example, some judges get compensated for the number of cases they hear and so force plaintiffs to sue individually rather than in groups. Another problem is that corrupt local officials often try to derail lawsuits by putting pressure on judges, lawyers and plaintiffs. Manufacturers can be a vital source of tax revenue for local governments—and so local Communist Party officials, many with ties to companies, often resist legal challenges that might damage the firms. The town doctor in Xiping who helped the Legal Center for Pollution Victims collect signatures for the lawsuit against the chemical factory says he was punished for helping to organize the townspeople. "The local authorities forced me to close my medical practice," says the doctor, Zhang Changjian.

Always wary of movements that threaten to grow too large to control, Beijing recently placed more restrictions on class-action cases. As of May, lawyers who want to file a class action are required to get the signatures of at least three of their law firm's partners. That's a problem. Public-interest lawyers typically get any firm to sponsor them for their business permits; that way, they have legal status to practice while the partners at their sponsoring firm remain a safe distance from any sensitive litigation. The new restrictions effectively require sponsoring partners to associate themselves with sensitive cases.

So far, Zhang and the rest of the Center's lawyers haven't let the new rules deter them. They're mulling the idea of forming a for-profit law firm but running it like a public-interest firm. "We couldn't use the words 'public interest' in the name," says Zhang Jingjing, one of the Center's full-time lawyers. As she notes, "I'm a lawyer, and litigation is my best way to fight polluters." The battle is joined.

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