Publishing Pollution Data in China: Ma Jun and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs


CCC-14-0006.0 A civil society activist in any country expects challenges, but with an authoritarian government the role can carry extra burdens. This case examines the creation and evolution of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in China. Ma Jun founded IPE in 2006 and built it into a powerful and effective environmental watchdog. IPE aggregated and made available to the general public pollution data already published by the government; it made the information easy to use and interpret (including identifying individual polluters) by embedding it in online interactive maps. The nonprofit—which emphasized collaboration, not confrontation—won tacit support from the central government, which seemed to approve of IPE’s innovative use of information technology.

In early 2014, however, IPE prepared to take on a new group of polluters: state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Earlier, IPE had successfully pressured global brands to persuade their Chinese suppliers to clean up production. But SOEs were a different category. Many had powerful supporters in high positions—national, regional and local. Moreover, the data IPE planned to use to expose polluting SOEs had unexplained anomalies. IPE feared that publication would prompt a backlash, perhaps even costly lawsuits, from the SOEs. Yet consistent pressure on offenders was what had brought progress so far.
Use this case to give students grounding in the realities of civil activism in authoritarian states. Ask them to consider the avenues open to Ma Jun and his colleagues as they contemplated the environmental situation in China in 2006. What were IPE's goals, and what were its constraints? How did IPE find a path to official acceptance, and might others draw lessons from its experience? Is the environment a sui generis issue, or could IPE’s approach be duplicated in other policy areas? What should the institute do about SOEs—publish the data or wait?
The case can be used in a course/class on international sustainable development, China, environmental activism, or civil society.


This case was written by Laura Moustakerski for the Case Consortium @ Columbia and the Global Association of MDP Programs. Funding was provided by the Open Society Foundations. (0814)

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