Li Guixin, a resident of Shijiazhuang, the largest city in China’s Hebei province, has submitted a legal complaint to the district court, requesting that the Shijiazhuang Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau “perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law”, making him the first citizen to take private legal initiative against the government over the suffocating problem of air pollution in China.
China’s usual appearance in mainstream media in recent months, apart from references to its ongoing battles with Russia and Japan over several tiny and uninhabited islands, has been to show the opaque layer of smog suffocating its northern cities.
“The reason that I’m proposing administrative compensation is to let every citizen see that amid this haze, we’re the real victims,” Mr. Li was quoted as saying by the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily.
“Besides the threat to our health, we’ve also suffered economic losses, and these losses should be borne by the government and the environmental departments because the government is the recipient of corporate taxes, it is a beneficiary,” he said.
Wu Yufen, Mr. Li’s lawyer, declined comment, telling Reuters “this information is quite sensitive.”
The Xinhua news agency reported that 147 industrial companies had cut or suspended activities as of Tuesday, in an effort to ease the suffocating wall of smog that has blanketed not only the capital, but many cities in northern China for over a week now.
The primary culprits are coal burning, as well as the steel and cement industries in Hebei province. The provincial government has promised to cut steel output by 86% and cement output by 40% from last year’s production levels by the year 2020.
Mr. Li is seeking compensation in the lawsuit to recoup money he has spent on facemasks, an air purifier, and a treadmill he bought in order to keep up exercise that he was forced to curtail, owing to being forced indoors.
Despite lip service paid by the Chinese government to the problem of pollution in recent years, the problem has only grown drastically and visibly worse. Public anger over the government’s inability to manage the smog is turning into a political problem, with normally cautious citizens taking the unusual actions of filing lawsuits and speaking out against the authorities.
While the government’s smog alert was raised to “orange” level for the first time on Friday, many residents are demanding that it be raised it to “red” alert status, with regular readings of particulate matter reaching “beyond index” levels in Shijiazhuang. But a “red” alert would trigger the closing of all kindergartens, as well as primary and middle schools, something the government is reluctant to do.
“Why does the government still refuse to upgrade the alert to red? The kids have been sucking in filthy air for nearly a week,” a Beijing resident wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Wu Qiang, a political science professor at Tsinghua University, in a paper written over a year ago and translated only this week by China Change, summed up the challenges faced by private citizens looking to confront the government over its responsibilities. “In the past ten years, although the Property Rights Law was passed, private property owners are still unable to obtain effective protection. It is difficult for private property owners or environmentalists to resist pollution by asserting their property rights, or to make claims and demand compensation for rights infringement by polluters.”
A provincial government news mouthpiece, the Hebei Daily, has reported that the government is sending a team of health experts to the region to study the problem.