This story is part of Sixth Tone’s five-year anniversary project Changemakers.
The future of China’s environment depends to no small degree on a windowless meeting room at the center of a tiny 21st-floor office in the country’s capital. Its walls lined with all manner of brainstorming notes, this is where nongovernmental organization Friends of Nature contemplates the next steps for its dozens of lawsuits.
The NGO’s litigiousness–courts have accepted 42 of its cases as of March, with 22 concluded and 20 still in various trial stages–is the result of careful strategy. Rather than fighting battles over individual incidents, the organization wants to use the law to effect systemic change, director-general Zhang Boju, 37, tells Sixth Tone in the organization’s crowded office.
Founded in 1994, Friends of Nature has been at the forefront of China’s green movement ever since. In its early years, the organization fought the then-already-obvious environmental strains of economic development. Most notably, it sought to protect Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys and Tibetan antelopes, which were threatened by habitat loss and poaching.
Zhang remembers his early years as an activist at Friends of Nature, when he opposed hydropower stations damaging rare fish and exposed illegal building sites inside nature reserves. But the most likely outcome was construction workers being detained, not decision-makers. Ultimately, Zhang’s activism could not get at the root causes of the problems.
“Environmental issues are not simple,” Zhang says. They are ‘games’ between different parties. This was a really important realization for me. Fighting battle after battle against incidents of pollution isn’t as effective as getting involved earlier, at the legal and policy stage.
For years, that was easier said than done. China’s legal provisions were unclear about whether an NGO could file lawsuits about an environmental issue if the organization wasn’t itself directly affected. Friends of Nature’s legal team had its first seven suits rejected before one was finally accepted by a court in 2011, a landmark event.
Amendments to China’s civil procedure law in 2012 and environmental protection law in 2014–for which Friends of Nature lobbied–allowed NGOs to sue on behalf of others, opening up a wealth of possibilities. But Zhang and his legal team are deliberate about which issues to pursue. Depending on funds and donations, they have to weigh where their limited resources can truly make an impact.
One such opportunity presented itself in 2016. An incident of soil pollution was all over the news right around the time China’s central government announced a five-year action plan on the issue. It would become Friends of Nature’s most high-profile lawsuit to date. But, Zhang reminisces, he didn’t expect his organization to finally become a household name because of an eyebrow-raising legal defeat.
The case revolved around students at Changzhou Foreign Languages School, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. A few months after they had begun classes at a new campus built next to the former sites of three chemical factories, close to 500 of them showed symptoms of eczema, bronchitis, lymphoma, and even leukemia. Parents said the soil pollution these companies left behind a decade earlier was now sickening their children.
Parents’ monthslong protests fell on deaf ears until a national TV report. Their plight drew wide attention among a public shocked that pollution’s harmful effects could apparently linger for so long. People also empathized with families who had sacrificed to get their children into a good school, only to be rewarded with illness. “The dream has been shattered,” one parent told Sixth Tone at the time.
Together with another NGO, Zhang’s Friends of Nature successfully filed a lawsuit at the end of April 2016, requesting the chemical companies be held financially responsible for remediating the polluted land and apologize to the public. Through the litigation, Zhang hoped to keep the case in the news, and to raise awareness about the “polluter pays principle,” which stipulates that those responsible for pollution should pay for cleaning it up–something that wasn’t specified in Chinese law.
Following a long hearing in which the companies’ side argued that, because of restructuring and mergers, it was unclear what entity should be held accountable, the court in January 2017 ruled against the NGOs. The verdict said the Changzhou government had taken responsibility for the historical polluters and had started to remediate the soil, meaning pollution risks were now under control. It also meant NGOs had to pay 1.89 million yuan (then $275,000) in court costs.
Friends of Nature’s legal team was dissatisfied with the ruling, because it put taxpayers on the hook for soil restoration instead of the polluters. The sky-high court fee also shocked environmental activists and law scholars. “We received many donations at the time, many of them were 189 yuan or 1,890 yuan,” Zhang recalls, adding that they refused the donations. “The public should not bear the cost of our loss.” Instead, the NGOs appealed.
In the meantime, Friends of Nature was advising lawmakers working on a new soil pollution prevention and control law that there should be a detailed system to hold polluters and their successors responsible for remediation. When the legislation was published in 2018, their suggestion had been accepted, adding a clause to the law that clearly laid out the polluter pays principle. The appeal ruling, which followed the law’s announcement, canceled the court fees and ordered the chemical companies to apologize.
Though the lawsuit ended in something of a draw, Zhang doesn’t much mind, believing that their effort in the courtroom helped the polluter pays principle become law. The value of environmental litigation goes deeper than simply victory and defeat, he says.
Everyone thought we were likely to lose the Changzhou case. Internally we had a lot of arguments, but everyone knew why we had to do this. We thought it had value and would have an impact, so we had to pursue it.
Zhu Xiao, an environmental law professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing, praises the organization’s legal approach. “The participation of social organizations in environmental public interest litigation is a critical part of public participation,” he says. “Friends of Nature has been involved in promoting many benchmark lawsuits that have historical significance or set milestones in case types.” The NGO helps set valuable precedent by pursuing legally novel lawsuits, such as those involving climate change, Zhu says.
Last year, in another first, a court ruled in favor of Friends of Nature in a preventative environmental public interest civil lawsuit, suspending the billion-yuan plans to construct a dam in the southwestern Yunnan province that would have threatened the last habitat of endangered green peafowls. To obtain evidence for the lawsuit, Zhang found rafting enthusiasts able to escort the Friends of Nature team into the otherwise unreachable wilderness area that the dam was threatening to submerge, recalls Ge Feng, former head of legal and policy affairs at Friends of Nature.
Such rulings, though not always entirely to the organization’s satisfaction, are symbols of how far environmentalism has come in China in the 27 years since Friends of Nature’s founding, from afterthought to the topic of speeches by President Xi Jinping.
Caring for nature has also changed from a mostly upper-class pursuit to something supported by large swaths of society. The organization was started by a group of intellectuals, most prominent among them Liang Congjie, a Chinese historian and grandson of celebrated early 20th century political activist Liang Qichao. Liang Congjie, who headed the organization for a decade, called for “civic-mindedness” on protecting the environment at a time when this was seen as a government task, and when “nongovernmental organizations” were unheard of.
Zhang himself personifies this shift, coming from a more humble background than Liang Congjie. The son of a botanical garden worker joined Friends of Nature as a volunteer when he was a university freshman in 2002, and became a staff member after he graduated four years later. At the time, Friends of Nature was facing “transition difficulties.” After Liang Congjie stepped down in 2004, the organization changed directors five times in nine years.
In 2013, the NGO’s board selected Zhang, then 29, to become its youngest director. Zhang is currently in his eighth year as director-general at Friends of Nature, leading a team of 20 full-time and part-time employees and focusing on environmental lawsuits, education, and public participation. Friends of Nature also has 30,000 volunteers registered across the country.
Zhang prints his name card on wastepaper, and responds to messages with his outdated iPhone. Colleagues praise his sense of empathy and equality. One co-worker says she owes her job to Zhang, who, before becoming director-general, went against upper management’s wishes to hire a man when she applied.
China’s unique political system makes it difficult for the relatively young organization to model itself after green groups in other countries. But one thing Zhang says he has learned from foreign grassroots organizations is that sticking to your principles “is the premise of trust.” Friends of Nature is often the David to the Goliaths they are suing, leading to “life and death” situations, says Liang Xiaoyan, a co-founder and board member of Friends of Nature, who isn’t related to Liang Congjie.
The NGO’s lawsuits rub many the wrong way. “Many wealthy corporations and interest groups closely related to local governments put pressure on Friends of Nature,” Liang Xiaoyan says, adding that this mostly lands on Zhang’s shoulders. “There have been a few times when we mentally prepared ourselves to have to start all over again.” One time, a defendant threatened to shut down Friends of Nature if the organization refused to withdraw its suit. After discussion with the team, Zhang decided to persist. “Even if the organization is closed, we are still here,” a colleague told him.
The most expensive cases revolve around soil pollution and biodiversity loss, Zhang says, which involve mass testing of soil samples that can run into the millions of yuan and lawsuits that drag on for years. Last June, a nine-year case against soil polluters in Yunnan province–Friends of Nature’s first environmental public interest lawsuit to be accepted by a court, in 2011–was finally settled in mediation. The chemical company that discharged hundreds of thousands of tons of chromium residue that ended up in the local groundwater agreed to pay 3.08 million yuan for soil pollution remediation.
“Environmental protection is a long-term struggle. What you are facing is often not victories, but frustrations and difficulties,” Liang Xiaoyan says.
Zhang Boju’s motivation comes from his love for nature, which is his important source of strength.
In his spare time, Zhang likes outdoor activities. He recalls his interest in nature beginning in middle school. At the age of 12, he made a specimen of a wildflower growing on campus, after which his teacher invited him into the biology club. Every weekend, a group of teachers took students on nature-themed expeditions, from studying butterflies to visiting museums.
The trip down memory lane makes Zhang emotional. At the time, he was an introverted boy, but in the club he met people who are still his friends today, and he developed an interest in the natural world. He’s grateful for the teachers who gave up their spare time for free, a rarity in a competitive, exam-oriented education system.
Besides knowledge of flora and fauna, the club also taught Zhang something else. “I realized you can live your life according to your own ideals,” he says.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.