Chinese Man Sues Government Over Smog

china-smog-shijiazhuang-feb-2014.jpg People wearing face masks walk in the square outside the Shijiazhuang railway station amid heavy smog on Feb. 25, 2014.

A resident of the northern Chinese city of Shijiazhuang is suing the local government for compensation over the thick smog choking the city, saying the authorities have failed to clean up widespread air pollution.

Li Guixin lodged a complaint to a district court in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei, calling on the city's environmental protection bureau to "perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law," according to a report in the official Yanzhao Metropolis Daily.

"The reason that I'm calling for administrative compensation is to let people see that we're the real victims of all this smog," the paper quoted Li as saying.

Li wants compensation for additional money he spent on face masks, an air purifier, and a treadmill he bought so as to exercise indoors on days when pollution levels were severe, particularly last December.

"Besides the threat to our health, these economic 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 told the paper.

The complaint came as China's National Meteorological Center raised its smog alert for northern and central China to orange this week, with the haze set to blanket vast swathes of the country, including Beijing, for at least another day.

The official Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday that 147 industrial companies in the capital had cut or suspended production, in a bid to cut pollution.

Right to legal challenge

It was unclear whether the court would accept Li's case, as Chinese courts aren't obliged to accept lawsuits and frequently turn down cases that imply a criticism of the local government.

However, Xinhua quoted an official at the environmental protection bureau as saying that citizens have the right of appeal through legal challenge.

Xie Jiaye, head of the California-based America-China Association for Science & Technology Exchange, said Li's lawsuit showed that Chinese people were painfully aware of the threat to their health posed by pollution.

"The smog problem is getting worse and worse, and it's threatening the health of the entire nation," Xie said. "This citizen is using the law as a weapon to try to protect his rights."

Anti-pollution efforts

Beijing plans to shutter hundreds of polluting factories under new rules that come into effect on March 1, official media reported.

Among the measures aimed at combating pollution is a 10 billion yuan (U.S. $1.65 billion) anti-pollution fund announced by China's cabinet, the State Council, earlier this month.

The fund will offer rewards to local governments that clean up their act, and is targeted at reducing harmful particulate matter air pollution like PM 2.5.

China's smog has repeatedly brought large swathes of the country to a standstill, particularly in the north, forcing airports to cancel thousands of flights, requiring schools to close, and reducing visibility on city streets.

Coal furnaces

Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang said Li's lawsuit could shine a spotlight on local governments, which often give the go-ahead to heavily polluting operations on their own doorstep, particularly smaller coal-fired furnaces that power campus-wide heating systems for large organizations like factories and schools.

"The smaller coal furnaces are unable to combust the coal completely, and they are churning out [suspended particulates] 24 hours a day," Sun said.

"It's not that the government doesn't know about this problem. They are unwilling to spend money to upgrade central heating systems."

Xia said part of the problem was a lack of publicly available information on the sources of pollution in China.

"Citizens should have access to figures stating whether or not exhaust emissions from cars are over the limit, whether there is lead in exhaust fumes, and whether or not polluting factories have been shut down," he said.

"The government has fallen short in respect of this kind of oversight. All this evidence needs to be collected."

'Extreme levels'

Instead, China's Internet censors last week deleted online references to an official pollution report which described the capital city as nearly unfit for human habitation, while state media tried to limit the damage to Beijing's international image.

The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences report ranked Beijing second to last in the environmental category in an index of 40 world cities.

"The pollution index nears extreme levels, and is near a level that is no longer livable for human beings," the report concluded.

But state media has hit out at those who criticize the government's role in air pollution, calling for a "united front" to tackle the problem.

Around 600 million people are affected by air pollution and smog days that plague northern China, according to a July report from China's State Development and Reform Commission.

And a recent report by the American National Academy of Sciences found that residents of northern China could be losing five years of life expectancy compared with those in the south, which until recently has enjoyed better air quality.

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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