The air quality monitor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing measures pollution on a scale from 0 to 500. On the night of January 12 it kept rising and rising, soaring well "beyond index." It peaked at an AQI of 755, with fine particulate matter reaching 886 micrograms per cubic meter, more than 35 times the concentration the World Health Organization considers safe.
Embassy officials reportedly thought the monitor was broken. Many of us in Beijing felt exhausted and suffered headaches, and hospital emergency rooms were overrun with cases of heart and respiratory problems.
As the crisis made international headlines, few people were more sought after for comment than Ma Jun, Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an NGO based in Beijing. Ma believes China may be on the threshold of a major change in how it manages the environment, thanks to an unprecedented level of public awareness.
But Ma did not come to this platform overnight: He has doggedly and quietly championed the cause of pollution transparency for decades.
From Journalist to Muckraker
Sitting with Ma in his office last year, I asked him to talk about the remarkable 20-year career that propelled him to the forefront of China's environmental movement.
Ma was lucky enough to find a job with "the privilege of asking questions."
He took me back to 1992, the year Deng Xiaoping made his famous tour to open southeastern cities to commerce. China remained closed in many ways but Ma was lucky enough to find a job with "the privilege of asking questions." He was a fresh journalism graduate from the University of International Relations and had landed a position as a researcher and translator in the Beijing office of the South China Morning Post, later working his way up to office manager. At the paper he found himself immersed in every kind of issue and story.
While working as a journalist Ma came to realize that China was in an environmental crisis. He had grown up learning the poems of Li Bai and Du Fu, poets who spoke of China's lakes, rivers, and land in lyrical, beautiful images. "I grew up reading these books, knowing this landscape through the words of ancient literary giants. I had an image in my mind, but when I traveled—it was just so different."
In 1994, he found himself at the Three Gorges Dam site covering the story for his paper. Ma was saddened to find that the trees had been clear cut, the river muddied and polluted. "Li Bai and Du Fu had both been so inspired by the landscape, by the gorge, by the torrential flow. When I saw the river, I felt such a big loss."
When he traveled to Dongting Lake in 1996, he expected to find a place he knew from ancient literature as "vast and extremely pretty." But when he got there, he "found that the lake during the dry season had been reduced to a few rivers. The degradation was just so obvious."
And when he went to the Fen River in Shanxi province, Ma saw "streams coming out of different villages with different colors, representing different industries: copper green and iron red and iron brownish, and yellowish and reddish. And they all came together to form a very highly polluting flow, eventually ending up in the Yellow River."
While there was no singular epiphany that converted Ma to the environmental cause, a meeting with the chief engineer of the Yellow River Commission proved important. The engineer explained triumphantly how the mega-engineering project with its series of large dams and embankments should be "considered as a great success" because it conquered the floods the Chinese had lived with along the river for thousands of years.
Yet Ma saw it differently: "At that time, as we sat and talked, the river had been dry for months." When asked about this, the engineer replied: "There are different opinions, but quite a few engineers and hydrologists think we should fully utilize our resources without having them wasted into the sea."
Ma was quite shocked by this idea. No question, the scheme had helped to control floods. But Ma didn't see the project as a success in the broader sense. "This is our mother river. We lived with it for thousands of years. It's the cradle of our civilization. And if our success is based on its total demise, drying up altogether, I don't think that is the way to a sustainable solution."
But there was more. The engineer explained that the Yellow River project was considered so successful that they had a plan to copy it on every other major river in China. Ma looked into it, and confirmed the ambitious plan to build large-scale projects on every major river in China. "They didn't want to waste any meter of the height of the water. They wanted to make full exploitation of all resources."
Writing a Book on China's Water Crisis
Ma wanted "to share this information with other citizens" but soon realized that the story was too big for his paper—in every sense. The volume of information was vast, and at the time the SCMP did not have an environmental page. So Ma decided to embark on a book project.
Ma took advantage of the "special access" he had to information at his paper. He organized environmental clippings from the paper's huge archive, and visited libraries to find old writings and professional periodicals. Ultimately, Ma's research culminated in the groundbreaking 1999 book China's Water Crisis.
In the earliest days, the book found an unassuming home in Chinese libraries alongside "very technical books, like one providing a sediment analysis of the Yellow River, or a book on Yangtze River flood control." Water, explains Ma, was not yet a "focal issue in China," so it was left to technocrats to discuss.
Over time, the book and its broader message found their way to a wider audience, including researchers, bureaucrats, NGOs, and media. It was translated into English in 2004. "Gradually," says Ma, "it just picked up momentum."
Consulting Work, Stakeholders, and Supply Chains
As the book gained in stature, readers began to ask him for solutions to the water challenge he had identified, and Ma began working as an environmental consultant.
He joined a small firm called Sinosphere, where he quickly made an exciting discovery. He and his colleagues were engaged by one of the world's largest companies to design a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program for its supply chain—one of the first comprehensive schemes in China addressing labor, health and safety, and environmental issues. Ma saw how the scheme changed supplier behavior. "When we first identified gaps, and made clear that if they didn't change they were going to lose their business, they changed their behavior in just a few months."
"When you put a multimillion dollar contract at stake, it has big leverage."
Customers, he realized, can be even more powerful than legislation as a vehicle for change: "When you put a multimillion dollar contract at stake, it has big leverage."
Yet Ma also put this exciting discovery in context. The company that had committed to implementing CSR in China had been reacting to pressure from labor and environmental stakeholders—it had not decided to review its supply chains in China all on its own. As he reflected further on corporate behavior, he realized that it was naïve to think that entrepreneurs and big business would just naturally, by themselves, turn to environmental protection. They may say "their heart is green," but "in reality, it's not like that. They look for profits—business is business."
Ma saw that it would be complacent for China to depend fully on care and concern from across the Pacific Ocean to improve its environment, to help with its pollution control. China, he decided, also needed its own internal pressure.
A Vision of Environmental Governance
After his book gained exposure, Ma was invited to give numerous talks. John McAlister, a Yale alumnus who was in charge of the Yale Club of Beijing, heard him speak and recommended Ma to the Yale World Fellows Program, the university's initiative to develop emerging global leaders.
Ma spent a year at Yale. During his second semester he undertook a research project comparing environmental management in China and Western countries, intending to complete a second book for publication in China. Ma's thesis was that China needed "a different kind of environmental governance."
In any country, he contends, the public has to be involved in environmental management—and especially so in China with its weak enforcement capacity and reluctant judiciary. "Pollution control work in China needs to be transparent, participatory, and give people the right to seek legal relief."
An NGO with a Mission
After returning to China from Yale, Ma's book on environmental governance never found a willing publisher in China—they told him it "went a bit too far." Even so, he kept writing and refining his ideas about the need for public participation and transparency.
By late 2005, Ma decided to establish an NGO, and in early 2006 he established the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. His writings on environmental governance came to life now in a different way—as a "road map" for the institute. From the very beginning, he says, "We had a clear goal."
Acting on the principle that participation requires information, Ma and his team began to establish a "pollution map database"—a database which remains the foundation of the institute's work to this day. They collected data on water, air, and solid and hazardous waste, launching IPE projects with this information.
Stakeholders can search the IPE database for any supplier by name and find out if it has records of violations in the last nine years.
In 2007, recalling his consulting experience, the IPE came together with a broad coalition of NGOs to launch the Green Choice Alliance. The project appealed to "consumers to use their purchasing power to influence behavior, and at the same time called on big companies to green their supply chain." Stakeholders can search the IPE database for any supplier by name and find out if it has records of violations in the last nine years. Multinationals like GE, Coca-Cola, and Walmart "now look on the database as part of their due diligence."
Suppliers, in turn, are often "pushed by their buyers" to contact IPE. They end up calling Ma to find out what the IPE is and why their records of violations are disclosed there. Many ask how their records can be removed.
Faced with the reality that their violations are in the public eye, companies usually choose to "explain what went wrong, and how they have tried to fix the problem." Many also provide updated government monitoring data to show progress. To ensure the process maintains integrity and is free of "temptations and pressures," any company that wants a record removed must go through an independent audit, and the report needs to be authorized by the Green Choice Alliance NGOs.
Big Emitters: The Usual Suspects
The database is a moving target, and remains a work in progress. Even so, it has already traced the broad contours of China's sources of pollution, and a startling picture emerges. In a vast country of 1.3 billion people, spread over a diverse landmass and hundreds of cities, a mere 8,600 factories and 2,800 sewage plants were responsible for 65 percent of China's wastewater and air emissions in 2012. This finding is oddly encouraging: If China's top 11,400 polluters would improve their practices, it would put a large dent in the problem.
Much of this pollution is concentrated geographically as well. "When people look at this map," says Ma as he shows me his computer screen, "they are always amazed at how intensive the pollution is in different regions." He juxtaposes the distribution of factories around Beijing with a water quality map for the same area: "If you overlay these two maps you can see clearly why these rivers are, from beginning to end, totally black."
Staying this Side of the Line
Some of these polluting factories have powerful people behind them, and in the last few years, outspoken advocates of various kinds, including some environmental champions, have been shut down by the Chinese authorities—or even jailed. So I ask Ma: "How do you stay on this side of the line?"
Ma acknowledges that the IPE has to proceed with care, especially because China does not have a long history of transparency or NGO participation. "The government has some suspicion. It's a reality."
But he points to four factors that have helped the IPE significantly. First, it is based and legally registered in Beijing and thus not subject to the whims of "local government officials." Ma believes that the central government, at least, is sincere in "trying to manage this issue."
Second, the IPE says what it does and does what it says: "We stay on course: We build our trust by being consistent."
Third, it only uses government data—a "compromise," he concedes, but one which also helps with alignment.
Fourth, it collaborates "with other stakeholders"—including for instance the World Resources Institute and the Energy Foundation. Collaboration allows IPE to allocate limited resources more efficiently—"We don't need to build a huge auditing team, for example"—and also underscores a broad consensus around its mandate: "We collaborate with others, and keep them updated."
No Exit from China, No Exit for China
I asked Ma how he maintains his resolve and commitment. It is "quite easy to be pessimistic," he says, "when every day we're facing serious data which show how bad the situation is; when we understand that probably it will take decades or even generations to overcome some of the problems."
"For anyone who doesn't have an exit strategy in this country, we don't have other options but to try to take action now."
But Ma's career is premised on the idea that he can make a difference: "I still always try to be upbeat. And it's always still better to do something than not do anything." Besides, says Ma, "For anyone who doesn't have an exit strategy in this country, we don't have other options but to try to take action now."
Ma offers the comment in a straightforward way, but it is a touchy issue among China's elites. One recent survey found that some 60 percent of Chinese millionaires have emigrated, are doing so, or are thinking about doing so. Many of them got rich with factories that contributed substantially to the pollution, but their children will escape the degradation for greener pastures.
"If you have a plan to move to other places," says Ma with a wry smile, "then you will have different thoughts. But if you're in this boat, you can't just sit and watch these cracks form. You have to do something to patch it up."
But how much progress has China made? Ma is thoughtful: "When you look at China from the days that I published the book China's Water Crisis to now, the environmental challenge remains equally serious." He gives the example of severe water scarcity in northern China: "Sooner or later we will reach a point that it will be quite challenging to maintain this area as a major breadbasket."
And he stresses that some of the worst pollutants, like heavy metal toxins, will be extremely difficult and costly to clean up. "We're going to leave a time bomb for generations to come."
So, yes there is much cause for concern, says Ma, and he feels the urgency. But in the last decade, he says, "One thing has changed: people's awareness. And I do see a huge opportunity here."
IPE is both a cause and effect of this awareness. What started as a "pure government information platform" has been transforming itself into a "corporate" platform as well. When so many suppliers in China do not even comply with the law, it is important to start with "compliance as the bare minimum."
It was with this goal that Ma and his team challenged Apple, the world's biggest company (by market capitalization), to disclose the pollution records of its suppliers. At first Apple refused to provide any information. So Ma and his colleagues ranked it last in an audit of 29 IT companies (the others had all provided information).
They followed that up with a "Poison Apple" campaign. Later, in the face of growing media and stakeholder pressure both inside and outside China, Apple relented and is now providing supplier information. Ma was rightly celebrated for this David-and-Goliath achievement, and perhaps no episode better illustrates his point about the power of information.
But why does disclosure have to stop with minimal standards? "We could move beyond compliance. We could compare companies within the same industry to see which one has better water and energy efficiency. And eventually this data could also influence the choices of buyers."
To this end, Ma recently wrote an opinion piece appealing to the new government leaders in China, saying that only a new approach to managing the environment "with open participation at its heart" can provide the all-important motivation to protect the environment.
He imagines a day when the entire population of China begins to reward environmental leaders and punish environmental laggards: "If we have 1.3 billion people try to move to a different direction, a direction which is more sustainable, then it will be a huge power."