"When I had began studying law in the 1980s, I had had a very Chinese, understanding of what ‘law’ meant: a tool of authority, not the people. Now here I was, twenty years later, with a more adult understanding of my work as a legal activist: quietly helping others to find a path to the citizenship that is their right."
JingJing Zhang is an environmental lawyer who started her work in China. From 1999 to 2008 she was the first litigation director with the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims in Beijing, and through her work here she won several milestone cases in the Chinese courts, including the biggest successful environmental class-action suit against a chemical company thatdischarged toxic substances to rivers in Fujian Province. Her present focus is on monitoring Chinese companies’ environmental performances in other countries and on using legal test cases to ensure overseas Chinese companies’ compliance with environmental laws and international human rights standards.
In 2005, JingJing Zhang won a settlement in a landmark class action suit against a Chinese state chemicals company for polluting a community’s water supply in Fuzhou: in authoritarian China, environmental advocacy was the only way of doing human rights work. More recently, she has dedicated her life to holding her country accountable for environmental and human rights abuse around the world. In this essay, she follows China’s Belt and Road initiative, from Ecuador in Latin America to Guinea in West Africa, working with communities who have suffered in its wake of Chinese mining projects. When frustrated – as she often is, by the almost insurmountable problems of poverty and disempowerment – she remembers the experience of the Fuzhou victory, and its effect on the villagers she represented: ‘They had come to understand what the law meant, and how they could use it to protect their own rights. They had become the owner of their laws – I could even say the owner of their power. They were furious with the company for appealing the verdict, but I sensed something else alongside the anger: I would call it confidence… All around me were citizens, not subjects. It felt like a first for China, and whether we won or lost, I knew I had done my job.”