I was sitting in a hotel lobby in
This kind of activism was new, and nobody really knew where the government's limits of tolerance were. That day, they were worried. There had been signs that the government line was hardening in threats against several of the activists, who were aware that they could expect little in the way of official protection. What none of them knew was whether this was the end of a season of tolerance or only a temporary setback.
The Chinese government, they explained, had one eye on the environmental resistance that was challenging important economic interests inside the country, and another on the recent wave of 'colour Revolutions' beyond its borders. The Rose Revolution in
While none of these was an environmental protest, many authoritarian governments believed they saw the hand of foreign NGOs in this series of civic protests. Western NGOs were also supporting
The government's 2006 report on the state of
Not everybody agreed. A vice-minister of the environment, Pan Yue, had put the reality of
The Chinese Prime Minister
The group in the hotel lobby all survived the chill of government disapproval that year and went on to become leaders of an increasingly mature activism. The 11th Five Year Plan came and went, its environmental targets of pollution control and energy efficiency - to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 per cent and total emissions of major pollutants by 10 per cent by 2010 - missed, but not by much. Come its successor, last year's 12th Five Year Plan, the language was bolder and the vision more strategic. Six years on, the ideas that Pan Yue had floated so provocatively have moved to the mainstream.
As any visitor to
In the six years since that hotel lobby discussion,
To translate that into effective action against powerful economic and industrial interests remains a challenge that is unlikely to be met without other policies that the government is reluctant to implement.
Effective legal sanctions against polluters, a freer rein for civil society activism and a loosening of press censorship would undoubtedly help. There is little sign as yet of government enthusiasm for such measures, but there is at least a clear central government commitment to get
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