Ma Jun is one of China's leading environmental activists and the director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in Beijing. He was awarded the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize for exposing water and air pollution violations throughout China, using Internet-accessible maps. He has also successfully challenged large companies like Apple and Wal-Mart to restructure their global supply chains.
SIERRA: I read that in Beijing, there is only smog when residents are allowed to use their heaters.
Ma Jun: It's actually called the "heating season." But then the smog becomes even worse, yes.
How long have you lived there?
I was born in the coastal city, Qingdao, but I grew up in Beijing, actually. That's where I started doing my environmental work. I started with my first job in the media, which afforded me to travel in different parts of China. And I was struck by some of the environmental degradation, especially of our water resources. There were shortages, pollution, and river eco-systems were being destroyed. I put what I saw into this book [China's Water Crisis, in 1999] and that got me started in what I'm doing now.
How did you start working with the online water and air pollution maps?
I'd been trying to look for solutions to our environmental challenge and came to the conclusion that the barrier to our environmental protection is not the lack of technology, or even money — it's the lack of motivation. Motivation should come from law enforcement or court litigation, but in China, it's still very difficult. I decided we needed public participation, but the public needed to be informed before getting involved. With that in mind, I decided to create these databases to provide easy access.
Were you afraid of putting that information online?
Yes, well, data is still considered to be quite sensitive in my country. We needed to handle that quite consciously, so we made a compromise: at first, we compiled mostly government-sourced information. See, China in recent years has made some progress in environmental transparency. The government started disclosing some of its monitoring data, but it's still bits and bits here and there. It's very difficult for people to access this stuff. So what we were doing, through relentless data gathering, was putting it all together on a searchable platform, so everyone could utilize the data. Of course, the government would to check what's going on, but once they realized that our data is based on their own monitoring, it became somewhat easier for them to accept.