‘We had to sue’: the five lawyers taking on China’s authorities over smog
Benjamin Haas in Hong Kong
Monday 13 February 2017 12.00 GMT
Who is responsible for China’s chronic and deadly air pollution? That depends on who you ask. Officials blame the weather or outdoor barbecues, activists blame steel companies and coal-fired power plants. But Yu Wensheng blames only one actor: the government.
The 50-year-old lawyer recently launched an unprecedented suit against the authorities in three regions in China, claiming they have failed in their responsibilities. For a government with the motto “Serve the People”, Yu feels the officials are serving other interests by allowing nearly half a billion people to choke on toxic smog.
“Our bodies are being harmed because of the ineffectiveness of our government; because of their inaction and carelessness, we suffer,” Yu told the Guardian. “The pollution has affected my family, my son is coughing, I’m also coughing, and I feel the smog caused this. I am suing as a victim.”
Northern China is frequently blanketed with thick clouds of deadly smog that is linked to almost a third of all deaths in the country – and caused by steel plants, a heavy reliance on coal for heat and power generation, plus millions of cars. While the authorities have “declared war on pollution”, many feel progress has been slow and the region is still hit with a yearly bout of “airpocalypse”.
We have laws, regulations and systems to combat pollution, but they’re not being enforced
Yu and four other lawyers have filed cases against the governments of the capital Beijing, the neighbouring port city of Tianjin, and Hebei province, home to some of the country’s most polluted cities.
“If the authorities don’t accept the case or use some other method to dismiss it, it can only show the government has a bad attitude in the face of pressure from the citizens,” Yu says. “That would clearly show they don’t serve the citizens at all.”