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Movers And Shakers

Ma Jun

Tireless environmental activist seeks to nurture China's environmental conscience

by Jean-François Tremblay
October 1, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 40

Credit: Jean-FranÇois Tremblay/C&EN
Credit: Jean-FranÇois Tremblay/C&EN

He is only 39, but Ma Jun is already one of China's leading environmental activists. Last year, Time magazine went so far as to name him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Ma is not one to pilot a dinghy between whalers and their prey or chain himself to the gates of polluting factories. A soft-spoken and unassuming man, his main achievement to date is making it easier to consult information already released by Chinese government agencies about the quality of water in Chinese lakes and rivers.

"Water pollution is one of the most serious problems facing our country," Ma says. "Solving this will require public involvement, and the precondition for that is access to data and information."

For a year now, the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, the group Ma founded in Beijing, has maintained the online China Water Pollution Map. This "map" is really a Chinese-language searchable database of specific information about rivers and lakes.

At the click of a button, users can look up recent data about the water quality of any major river or lake in China and which companies have discharged pollutants in excess of legal levels. The names of major chemical companies, both Chinese and foreign, appear in the database. Increasingly, Ma says, it's the polluters listed in the database that get the public's attention.

Ma and his team obtain their information from various sources. They scour reports released by municipal, provincial, and national environmental protection agencies. They also make use of Chinese news reports in which environmental officials are interviewed. "To me, that's like an official statement," Ma explains.

It was his work as a researcher in the Beijing bureau of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post from 1993 to 1999 that got Ma interested in Chinese environmental issues. "I traveled many places with my colleagues," he recalls. "I've seen too many polluted rivers." Ma joined the Post after obtaining a degree in journalism from Beijing International Studies University.

In 1999, Ma published "China's Water Crisis," a book that was updated and translated into English in 2004. A thoroughly depressing work, the book details how almost every major river and lake in China has been or is being ravaged by human activity. It also describes the unintended consequences of most of China's efforts to harness its rivers—for irrigation, power generation, or flood prevention—during the past several hundred years.

Selected to attend the Yale World Fellows Program in 2004, Ma conducted research comparing environmental governance in China and in Western countries. He pondered what he could do to solve China's water crisis.

During his studies, Ma observed that companies in developed countries pollute less than those in China, largely because they are sensitive to public pressure. Companies in China would mend their ways if the public could apply a similar pressure, he reasoned.

Ma formed his institute in June 2006, about a year after returning from the U.S. It employs four people who work out of an apartment in the center of Beijing. To build their database, Ma and his team spent a few months gathering the names of about 2,500 companies that have been officially cited—several times in some cases—for exceeding discharge standards in China's rivers and lakes between 2004 and 2006. Volunteers with knowledge of environmental sciences, database development, and geographic information systems contributed to the effort. They launched the database in September 2006. Continually expanded, the database now includes the names of about 8,000 companies.

The database has created a buzz in the Chinese media. Ma says one of its main benefits has been to "increase the cost of violating environmental regulations" by publicly embarrassing offenders. He explains that the maximum fine levied on companies for exceeding water emissions standards is $27,000, which is much too low in his opinion.

Executives from about 25 companies listed in the database have visited his office to try to have their firms' names removed. Ma says he has explained to them that he would do so if they went through an independent environmental audit to prove that their performance has improved.

Ma hopes that, in the future, foreign companies buying Chinese products will consult his database to avoid dealing with polluters. If multinational corporations could convince their suppliers operating manufacturing facilities in China to improve their environmental performance there, it would greatly impact the country's environment, he says.

Although the task of keeping the database current is significant, Ma's institute has already gotten involved with another big project. In collaboration with 20 other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), it has launched the Green Choice Initiative, a Beijing-based program that aims to inform the public about ways to consume in a more environmentally sustainable manner. Among its first moves, Green Choice has publicized the names of 25 major consumer-goods companies that have been cited for violating environmental standards. About half of these companies are foreign, Ma says.

Considering the small size of his team, Ma acknowledges that the projects he has undertaken may be too ambitious. He adds that he's wary of accepting funding from abroad, because "it could raise concerns in our society." Authorities in China are suspicious of foreign-funded NGOs, he explains.

Despite his high profile, Ma says he does not feel like one of the world's most influential people. "If that were the case, I would be far more effective," he says. The smog that envelops Ma's neighborhood on a recent day in Beijing is a reminder that he is probably right.



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