Chinese Man Demands Local Government Repay Cost Of His Treadmill In Landmark Anti-Pollution Lawsuit

CREDIT: AP/ Ng Han Guan

A woman wears a mask as she walks past government propaganda during a day of heavy pollution in Beijing, China, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.

Li Guixin, a resident in Shijiazhuang, the capital of north China’s Hebei province, believes local environmental authorities should “perform their duties to control air pollution according to the law.” Now he’s taken matters into his own hands by becoming the first person in China to file a lawsuit against the local government, specifically the city’s environmental protection bureau, saying he’s owed money for economic damages relating to the high levels of pollution and debilitating smog.

Li is seeking 10,000 yuan ($1,635) from officials in Shijiazhuang to compensate for the costs of an indoor treadmill he used during particularly severe pollution, face masks and an air purifier. However he is also demanding compensation for other Shijiazhuang residents suffering from the debilitating pollution. Shijiazhuang is among the 10 cities with the worst air pollution in China, according to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. The city’s air quality index has rated pollution there “very unhealthy” for the last week, a level at which authorities advise against outdoor activities. This is when air pollution levels get so high it can be hard to remember what sunshine feels like.

“The reason that I’m proposing administrative compensation is to let every citizen see that amid this haze, we’re the real victims,” Li told the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily.

Hebei is a major industrial region surrounding Beijing. On Tuesday, China’s President Xi Jinping strolled around Beijing’s smog-laden streets in an apparent public affairs stunt to try and curtail some of the negative attention surrounding the recent spike in pollution in the area. Beijing’s air pollution is back in the news this week, as an orange pollution alert, the second-highest warning level, has been issued — the first since the current pollution monitoring system was established in October. Outdoor sports have been banned and the city has been spraying water on streets to reduce dust that has elevated the capital’s pollution to 10 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.

“Li Guixin couldn’t take a walk or run like the past as air quality worsened and he also has to wear a mask now when he goes out,” his lawyer Wu Yufen, who also lives in Shijiazhuang, told Bloomberg. “His case is relevant for everyone in our city.”

In an action plan developed in September, the government said it plans to cut coal use in Hebei, as well as close certain steel and cement factories. Reducing coal use will improve the quality of life for local residents like Li and is also an important step in mitigating climate change. China currently relies on coal for about 70 percent of its power generation. The country is making an effort to increase use of renewable technologies such as solar as well as use more natural gas, which burns with less extra pollutants. However, the increasing power demands of a country still growing and urbanizing not only make the challenges more acute, but also more critical.