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In China, an Investigative Reporter Uncovers a City’s Pollution Secrets

CCTV tower Beijing

Zhang Ke, an environmental reporter from China Business News, smelled a rat. He was accompanying an official government inspection team to Liupanshui, a city of roughly 2.8 million people in southwestern China, and the deputy mayor was assuring them that his city had no problems with pollution. In fact, he said, there were not even any coal or chemical plants there.

But Zhang Ke had recently taken a workshop from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) and the Capital Youth Journalists Association (a partner organization) in China on how to conduct investigative environmental journalism.

“I was inspired by the workshop and learned how to do investigative reporting, so when the deputy mayor told us that there were no coal and chemical plants in its area of jurisdiction, I thought it was time to try what I had learned,” Zhang later told Liu Jianqiang, an investigative journalist who led the EJN/CYJA workshop.

Zhang did a little digging and then told the inspection team that the deputy mayor, Ye Dachan, had lied to them. The inspectors conducted an on-site investigation, and found that the city had launched a power station project without due process; that there were water pollution hazards, even for drinking water; and that there were actually more than 30 coking plants in operation in the area.

As a result, the deputy mayor was forced to resign. The scandal became one of the biggest environmental stories in China in 2006, astounding not only because of the severity of the pollution but because of the brazenness of Deputy Mayor Ye's lies.

For his part, Zhang received an award for environmental journalism for his story.

Some of EJN's other activities in China in 2006 included a Beijing workshop with keynote speaker Gary Strieker in September of that year, patronized by Pan Yue, the country’s most outspoken environmental official, and attended by some of China’s most accomplished environmental journalists.

EJN also arranged for Strieker, formerly CNN International’s chief environmental correspondent, to be interviewed on the half-hour prime-time talk show "Dialogue." He gave a keynote address at a conference on corporate social responsibility at Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School, and along with EJN Executive Director James Fahn, spoke to 300 students at the Communication University of China.

In April 2007, EJN collaborated with Internews’ Beijing office to hold a media conference at People’s University in Beijing on environmental law, which examined case studies on illegal deforestation, air and water pollution and a controversy over urban development in Beijing as it prepared for the 2008 Olympics.

Banner image: Smoggy view of Beijing by Brady Bellini on Unsplash