Retired forestry official and green campaigner Liu Futang.
The trial of veteran environmentalist Liu Futang in Hainan this month came as a cruel reminder of how little China has moved forwards with regard to environmental justice over the past decade.

Despite the country’s sparkling rise to become the world’s second-largest economy, the administration led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has a poor record on environmental issues and is quite often plagued by its broken promises concerning transparency and public participation.

But compared with their embarrassing failure to take on unruly polluters, development-minded local authorities and increasingly powerful vested interests, it is arguably more unsettling to note that Hu and Wen, often portrayed by propaganda apparatuses as champions of the people, have done an even worse job in protecting whistle-blowers and many others who simply try to help out.

Liu is the latest in a long list of victims left in the lurch after years of courageous, almost quixotic, crusades against widespread environmental degradation and pollution that have come despite the apparent risks they have faced from antagonistic local officials who often serve as umbrellas for polluters. And his trial has therefore also become a test of the environmental legacy of the Hu and Wen administration.

Liu, a retired provincial forestry official and former government adviser in Hainan, has spent the better part of the past decade fighting reckless economic development and the property boom in Hainan, which many have warned is wreaking havoc on the relatively pristine, unspoiled natural environment on the island.

So it came as little surprise that a national outcry erupted when the award-winning anti-pollution hero was turned almost overnight into a criminal suspect who allegedly made illegal profits from self-publishing books exposing pollution scandals. No verdict has been announced yet.

Even the government has in the past recognised his efforts and expertise in environmental issues, and it is said that he used to be close to former top Hainan officials, including the high-flying Vice-Premier Wang Qishan , who was party secretary of Hainan when the Sars outbreak hit Beijing in 2003.

In April, Liu won the citizen journalist prize in the environmental press awards jointly organised by the internet portal Sina and Britain’s The Guardian for his online revelations last year that developers had destroyed one of the world’s last groves of water coconut trees to make way for a yacht marina.

Dozens of environmental groups, green activists and legal experts have rallied to his defence, issuing several open letters calling for his immediate release, citing his past contributions to tackling local environmental problems and his poor health.

They have condemned the mistreatment of the 65-year-old, who was detained in July while receiving treatment in hospital for high blood pressure and diabetes.

Outrageously, authorities have even refused to allow his relatives to send him warm clothes and food while in detention, and fellow environmentalists believe the authorities’ actions are a desperate bid to coerce Liu.

They say the real reason behind Liu’s trial was his prominent involvement in the mass protests in April against a government plan to build a 4 billion yuan (HK$4.91 billion) coal-fired power plant in the densely populated Yinggehai township in Hainan’s Ledong county.

The initially peaceful rallies turned violent when more than 6,000 villagers clashed with thousands of riot police. Local authorities imposed sweeping bans on media coverage of the bloody protests, but Liu detailed the event in his latest book, The Tears of Hainan II, published in June.

There were more rallies against the plant this week, with police firing tear gas into the crowd and detaining many protesters.

According to one of Liu’s friends, Feng Yongfeng, founder of the Green Beagle environmental group, he often talked about the dangers of antagonising local authorities, but he refused to back down.

In a Sina microblog post he wrote in June, Liu said he had been approached by two senior provincial-level officials who tried to talk him out of criticising the power plant project.

"Liu has apparently become the latest target for retribution because of his personal crusade against pollution over the years, which made him a thorn in the side of local authorities," Feng said.

Despite the many public appeals, legal experts say Liu looks likely to be convicted and is facing up to five years in jail, given the ambiguous nature of the accusation against him in a country with omnipresent censorship. Local authorities may also have free rein to interpret the law to suit their own agendas in the absence of intervention by higher authorities.

Many people have begun to say it is time for the central government, especially Hu and Wen, to get involved and put a stop to the tragic and farcical trial, which has been seen as a test of the outgoing leaders’ unfulfilled promises on environmental justice.

Liu’s case is typical of the precarious situation in which many environmental and social activists often find themselves. 

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