Zhang Jingjing, environmental litigator

Pollution lawsuits are a new concept in China, where a public-interest lawyer faces many challenges in her quest to educate people about their rights. Tian Lei reports.


In a room at a Guangzhou University, environmental lawyer Zhang Jingjing was expounding her views on green issues when a reporter interrupted by saying, “Your ideas are too naive!” The reporter, younger than Zhang, does not believe that legal and media oversight can bring a halt to China’s numerous environmental problems.

Zhang leapt to her feet and accused the reporter of a lack of faith in her profession. Zhang is convinced that her work can bring about ongoing improvements in China’s environment.

She is a lawyer working for the Centre for Legal Assistance of Pollution Victims (CLAPV) at the China University of Political Science and Law. Three decades of economic boom have created countless victims of pollution and there are very few organisations able to provide legal assistance. CLAPV is the only one doing so for no fee.

Zhang has worked at the centre for almost a decade now, in an old dormitory building already set for demolition. She is now head of the litigation department, yet she relies on donations from the United States to cover her salary. This is embarrassing for her, but she currently has no choice.

In April 2008, I accompanied Zhang on a visit to a mountain village in the north of Guangdong in southern China. It was her fourth time there, where she was attempting to persuade residents to sue the state-owned mining company, which has for over half a century piled up waste around wells and fields for over half a century. Several of the villages in the area are known for having high rates of cancer caused by the pollution. But the local people could not make the decision to sue. They had become used to annual rounds of protests at the mine and petitioning the government, all in exchange for a little compensation. 

“You will not need to spend a cent,” Zhang told them. “I will find someone to do medical checks and test the soil, and I would not charge you anything.” Sitting in the run-down village committee building, Zhang restates her case yet again. The village head is convinced, but a number of the villagers are not sure. If they lose the case, they would not even have grounds to keep on complaining to the government. They ask if Zhang can guarantee a large lump sum of compensation – but she cannot.

Zhang’s assistant was to accompany her, but due to a lack of funds the girl was forced to make the 200-kilometre trip from Beijing to the village by train and arrived three days late. With business not going smoothly, her assistant loses all hope. A reporter tries to cheer her up, saying that her boss is doing good work for the country, but Zhang and her assistant respond only with bitter smiles. 

Before going to university, Zhang grew up in a small chemical industry town in Sichuan. Her childhood memories are of crimson smoke puffing out of chimneys and waste water of all colours running through the gutters. Her parents worked in the surrounding plants. Many years later, while investigating pollution, she saw all these scenes again around the country.

In Chi Feng, Inner Mongolia, a copper smelting plant polluted the pear orchards and pastures of local herders. In Cangzhou, Hebei, a dairy firm polluted farmers’ orchards. In Bozhou, Anhui, a chemical plant polluted fields by the Wo River. In Beijing, residents of the Baiwang Jiayuan area were put at risk by high-voltage power lines. And then you have the villagers of Shaoguan in Guangdong, and the carcinogens the mine waste has brought them. These are the kinds of cases Zhang Jingjing has been dealing with for the last decade.

“Actually, we have not had many genuine legal victories,” she says. But for her, the difficulties in litigation are not the main thing. Regardless, more and more victims of pollution are coming to her for help. Even the residents of big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are relying more often on the law to address grievances. Their awareness of contracts and rights and their ability to organise may provide a glimpse of the future.

It is actually the victims themselves who are hardest to deal with. “In China, the worst victims of pollution are rural residents,” she says, “and when they ask a lawyer for help, they only have one thing in mind: compensation.” When they first make contact, they put all their hopes in the lawyer, believing whatever they are told. But as complex legal cases grind on and compensation does not match the hoped-for amounts, Zhang becomes the object of complaints and blame.

“At first I got a sense of moral contentment from being able to change people’s fate, people who rely on me unconditionally,” Zhang says. “But when people complain and blame you for what happened, that all disappears.” It seems these experiences might wear away her enthusiasm to help.

And after a win, there are even bigger problems. Although there is no charge to bring the case to court, CLAPV does sign agreements with plaintiffs. The agreements say that in the event of a win, CLAPV will receive a modest service fee in order to recover some of the expenses involved. But often the victims end contact when a case is won, and fail to pay up.

In March 2001, CLAPV helped victims of reservoir pollution in Jiangsu province win compensation of five million yuan (US$735,000) for 97 households after a three-year battle in the courts. But Zhang and her colleagues still have not received their service fee and have now been forced to sue their former clients.

It was only after CLAPV won regular funding from the Ford Foundation that it was able to undertake actual litigation work, and Zhang became a full-time lawyer.

This year Zhang was selected to participate in Yale’s World Fellows programme, which will allow her to go to Yale University in the United States as a visiting scholar. Yale described Zhang this way: “Committed to justice and strengthening the rule of law, Jingjing Zhang is one of China’s leading public-interest lawyers. An outspoken environmental advocate, she represents pollution victims in litigation cases and promotes public participation by helping communities organise public hearings on environmental rights and licensing processes.”

She has represented plaintiffs in many landmark environmental cases, including China’s first successful environmental joint action case against a chemical firm releasing toxins in Fujian.

Zhang says that the foundations of CLAPV are shaky; all its operations rely on stable funding from overseas foundations. Although every year the centre trains a number of lawyers in handling environmental litigation, only ten are currently active in the field. Zhang sees the training of a cohort of environmental lawyers as the most pressing issue.

She hopes that CLAPV can become a platform, providing a stable income for idealistic law students and promoting professionalism among China’s public interest lawyers. “You cannot ask everyone to be an idealist,” she says.


Tian Lei, at age 26, is Southern Window’s youngest reporter. She joined the magazine in 2007.

Condensed with permission from Southern Window

 Homepage photo by ethnocentrics