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China won’t be able to solve its environmental crisis until it respects the human rights of its citizens.

The crisis is severe, as the recent reports from Harbin, a city of 11 million people in northeastern China, indicate. Harbin was shut down by air pollution that was 50 times the level the World Health Organization considers safe. It was so thick that the city’s official news site said: “You can’t see your own fingers in front of you.”

This is just the latest in terrifying stories about the state of the environment in China that surface so frequently these days. And it’s not as though the Chinese government is unaware of the problem.

In September, officials from the Chinese government, the United Nations, academic institutions and civil society participated in the sixth annual Beijing Human Rights Forum. The theme was environmental rights. The president of the China Society for Human Rights, a government-sponsored think tank, stated at the opening, “The pursuit of a clean, beautiful environment is among the most basic of human rights.”

The problem, though, is you can’t have meaningful environmental rights without other basic rights: access to information, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, right to health and right to a remedy. Far from recognizing these rights, the Chinese government is violating them, especially in regard to environmental protests.

In August, news accounts from a Tibetan community in Qinghai province in the southwest of China reported that protests over illegal Chinese mining led to people being gassed and arrested, with dozens injured. In Guangdong province in July and August, bloody clashes over the construction of a waste incinerator led to the detention of protesters, who chanted, “Say no to cancer!” and “Protect the health of future generations!”

In China’s 450 or so “cancer villages” (communities near factories or chemical plants where cancer rates far exceed national averages), residents who petition the local and national governments for help or information are often ignored, rejected, harassed or arrested.

In September 2009, parents whose children suffered from lead poisoning were arrested on a bus trip to a local town, where they were headed in the hopes of getting information about their children’s health. Chinese authorities defended the detention, saying the punishment was necessary for “public education.”

Beijing recently announced a new commitment to addressing environmental degradation in the country, including a plan to curb emissions from coal and other highly polluting sources. But China has lots of strong environmental-protection laws on the books. What is lacking is enforcement — and the accountability that comes from respecting human rights.

Protecting and restoring clean air, water and soil in China requires a commitment to human rights. Until China makes that commitment, the right to a healthy environment will be hidden in the smoggy skies.

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