INTERVIEW/ Ma Jun: Is China ready for greening?

July 20, 2012

By KEIKO YOSHIOKA/ Correspondent

In the "factory of the world" that is China, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization is trying to clean up the environment by disclosing information on corporations responsible for pollution.

Ma Jun, the founder and director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), seeks to revolutionize environmental awareness of Chinese industry by taking his crusade directly to global corporations that have business dealings with Chinese component suppliers.

Ma and his nine full-time workers at IPE were instrumental in stripping some layers of secrecy off the components supply chain of Apple Inc. of the United States.

Following are excerpts of Ma's recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun:

* * *

Question: You created a global sensation last year when you accused a Chinese supplier of Apple's iPhone and iPad components of polluting the environment. How did that come about?

Ma Jun: It wasn't that we singled out Apple for attack. Not at all. We have always gone after Chinese companies that pollute the environment, and we began a few years ago to deal directly with global corporations that receive components from them. In collaboration with other environmental NGOs in China, we ask such corporations to overhaul their supply chains and try to find out what improvement measures they are taking.

Apple just happened to be one of those global corporations, others being Japanese, American and European electronics, food and apparel makers and retail chains.

Q: What made you turn your attention to global corporations that have advanced into the Chinese market?

A: I realized that by negotiating directly with mammoth corporations at the top of the supply chain, we could ask them to keep their environmentally wayward suppliers under control. As most small and medium-sized Chinese businesses have little or no awareness of what they are doing to the environment, it is practically impossible to get them to clean up their act of their own accord.

But their environmental awareness could change dramatically if reputation-conscious mega-corporations were to declare, "We aren't buying components from businesses that are harming the environment."

In fact, changes have come about after the German head office of Siemens AG sent a letter of warning to a problem factory, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. checked its more than 10,000 business associates against environmental violations.

After heavy metal pollution emerged in 2009 as a major environmental issue in China, we conducted extensive interviews with about 30 IT firms. But Apple refused to cooperate. We knew, of course, that Apple doesn't own any factories (in China), but we were surprised by its refusal; it just didn't go with Apple's corporate image as an exceptionally innovative and progressive firm.

Q: What reasons did Apple give you for its refusal to cooperate?

A: The people there said they couldn't reveal their component suppliers because that was a corporate secret. We reassured them that we were as interested as they were in protecting their intellectual property, but we still couldn't persuade them to cooperate. So, we resorted to on-site investigations on our own, compiled a report titled "The Other Side of Apple"--complete with pictures--and uploaded it on our website last year.

One component factory that supplied to Apple was releasing heavy metal-contaminated waste water into the river, where the water had turned milky white. We interviewed a factory worker who became a victim of chemical poisoning while working for 2,000 yuan (about 25,000 yen or $316) a month.

While we were inspecting the factory premises, many local villagers showed up with bottles of contaminated river water and asked us to help them.

Q: What was the public's reaction to the report?

A: Overwhelming. The report was downloaded more than 100,000 times. More than 1,000 American and Chinese consumers sent letters to Apple, and German and French communications companies that use Apple products contacted us. In short, the information we supplied galvanized many stakeholders into action.

Q: How did Apple react?

A: Since September last year, we have sat down for talks with Apple representatives on seven occasions. On Oct. 31, we visited their headquarters outside San Francisco with an American environmental NGO and talked for five hours. The Apple people insisted that their company had "its own way of managing its affairs," but the most senior member there noted in the end, "We need transparency in the management of our affairs." I felt that something had changed.

Based on government data on environmental pollution, we compiled a list of factories that are believed to have dealings with Apple, and Apple admitted this to be the case with more than a dozen of these factories.

Where the latter are concerned, third-party investigators chosen by the factories themselves are conducting initial investigations, and we are passing on the results to yet other outfits to re-investigate. I have this unmistakable sense that Apple is beginning to change.

Q: You received this year's Goldman Environmental Prize, which is popularly known as the "green Nobel Prize."

A: I am certainly not an anti-corporation activist. On the contrary, I believe that corporate prosperity is indispensable to the development of society at large. That said, however, the fact that corporations pay taxes and create jobs does not entitle them to dump the cost of environmental protection on society.

Q: The IPE website shows an air and water pollution map based on regional reports in China. Has this been effective in your efforts?

A: Over the last nine years, 100,000 cases of pollution have been reported, involving more than 70,000 companies. Our urging of consumers to boycott their products has resulted in some of the companies improving their facilities and banks reconsidering their loans. The disclosure of information is certainly bringing about positive changes.

Q: Aren't you a bit harsher on foreign corporations than on their Chinese counterparts?

A: Foreign companies doing business in China tend to practice a double standard. They adhere strictly to environmental and labor standards in their own countries and other advanced countries, but they may be much more lax in China, where the penalties and damages they have to pay for breaking the law are smaller, and the social censure they face is more tame.

Moreover, China's local administrative authorities that want foreign investments may well overlook misconduct by foreign companies, and courts of law may side with them rather than with Chinese plaintiffs. It is a fact, I believe, that foreign corporations have taken advantage of these aspects of the Chinese system and gotten away without living up fully to their environmental responsibilities.

Q: In the meantime, Chinese businesses are also advancing overseas and beginning to be blamed for environmental damage in Africa and other parts of Asia. What can be done to stop this problem?

A: Unfortunately, Chinese companies are thicker-skinned than their foreign counterparts in dealing with environment-related criticisms. For this reason, disclosing negative information about them has not really helped to pressure them into cleaning up their act. However, it is also my belief that any company that is incapable of resolving an environmental dispute at home cannot be expected to succeed overseas. If a Chinese company comes under criticism abroad, I would like the company to mend its ways and bring the experience back home to China.

As a next step, I am now considering a "green stock market." The concept is to create a database on companies that are listed on the Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong stock markets and red-flag any that are suspected or accused of harming the environment. If investors begin to rely on this database in making judgments on their investments, I think even major steel, energy, mining and electric power companies will have to become more environmentally conscious.

Q: Don't you think companies that want to keep their costs low will leave China and move on to countries where environmental rules and regulations are more lax?

A: Companies flitting from one country to another in search of minimal environmental cost burdens is a picture I hope I won't have to see. To prevent that, I am wondering if I could create a global environmental database on supply chains. For that, international cooperation among NGOs is indispensable. In fact, we have started working together with an NGO based in Bangladesh.

Q: At an international conference on global warming in Copenhagen in late 2009, China argued vehemently that the world's advanced nations alone should be responsible for dealing with climate change. Does China have any genuine interest in going green?

A: China will never abandon its stance that while climate change is a shared problem of the international community, the degree of responsibility varies from country to country.

The advanced nations that have harmed the environment over the last 150 years of industrialization must shoulder a different kind of responsibility from China, which is the world's biggest carbon dioxide emitter today.

However, if China wants its growth to continue for a long time, it must stop guzzling energy and polluting the air and water as it is doing now. The nation's reliance on imported petroleum has exceeded 50 percent, and this is becoming a national security issue.

Society's stability is being shaken by the growing number of disaffected people who feel they are victims of environmental pollution. Even though China is still a developing nation, it is a superpower, and it does have its responsibility to planet Earth.

Q: We have more environmental NGOs and more environmental laws today than 10 years ago, but the environment itself doesn't seem to have gotten any better in the last decade. What do you think about this?

A: Without the NGOs and the laws, I believe the environment would have deteriorated much more and we'd be much worse off now. Come to think of it, information disclosure has advanced to the point where we can show the "pollution map" on our website. Ten years ago, most people believed that development had to come first, even at the cost of ruining the environment. Today, even poor people want clean air and water. Investments in environmental technology have also grown.

The biggest challenge now is how to get the whole nation moving.

What China is most lacking in is "propulsion power." Because China is a like mammoth vessel, it can't change its course with just one engine. It has to be nudged forward from all angles. To curb the consumption of fossil fuels that cause global warming, steps must be taken to raise their prices, and it is just as important to enhance the functions of the judicial system to deal more effectively with environmental pollution cases.

What cannot be resolved by the market alone has to be changed by motivating stakeholders to act. That is the role of NGOs, including our IPE, and I believe information disclosure is what keeps us going. I would like to remind all Japanese companies and consumers that they, too, are players.

* * *

Ma Jun was born in 1968. After a stint as a Beijing correspondent of a Hong Kong newspaper and later as a visiting researcher at Yale University, he founded the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a nongovernmental organization, in 2006. His published works include "Chugoku Mizu Kiki" (Water crisis in China).

By KEIKO YOSHIOKA/ Correspondent
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"Among Apple Inc.'s business associates, the first to address and correct its environmental problem in China was a Japan-affiliated factory," Ma Jun noted in Beijing. (Photo by Tamako Sado)

"Among Apple Inc.'s business associates, the first to address and correct its environmental problem in China was a Japan-affiliated factory," Ma Jun noted in Beijing. (Photo by Tamako Sado)

  • "Among Apple Inc.'s business associates, the first to address and correct its environmental problem in China was a Japan-affiliated factory," Ma Jun noted in Beijing. (Photo by Tamako Sado)
  • Ma Jun (Photo by Tamako Sado)
  • Ma Jun (Photo by Tamako Sado)

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