Cleaning Up China

This activist is taking on government-backed polluters with a new playbook for change

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But Ma is also playing a longer game. By showing that some of the worst pollution in China is created by SOEs, he wants to highlight the costs of the country's economic model, which is driven by government investment. Rebalancing China's economy away from heavy industry and massive infrastructure projects and toward services and consumer spending is a goal for both China and the U.S. It would help not only cut pollution but also reduce the U.S. trade deficit and encourage global growth.

"In America, you complain about job losses because of China, but here we carry all of the environmental costs," says Ma. He hopes his efforts will force the government to open up discussions about where new factories are built and to think more carefully about the metrics used for the promotion of regional leaders. (Currently they are judged mainly on the basis of GDP, which incentivizes growth at any environmental cost.) "We want more transparency and to give people more participation in the system," he says.

That, of course, sounds like change of a democratic sort. "We want to use the environment to shift the way our society works," says Ma. There's already been movement. In March, Ma got a group of large Chinese companies to support his efforts to make environmental data public. Some big SOEs, like Sinopec, are starting to release corporate social-responsibility reports. "It's like acupuncture," Ma says. "You press one spot and see the results elsewhere." It's an apt way to describe this uniquely Chinese style of activism that's effecting real economic--and social--change in the Middle Kingdom, from the bottom up.

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