“Beijing was such a different city,” says Ma Jun, China’s preeminent environmental watchdog, remembering the capital as it was during his childhood. “There were so few cars, I could walk in the middle of the road. In the summer, the streetlamps attracted swirling bugs. I loved those bugs: crickets, praying mantis, all kinds of beetles.” The 44-year-old pauses. “I also have a vivid memory of dazzling sunlight coming out of the sky. Today, the sky is different.”
An environmental researcher by trade, Ma spent years chronicling China’s ecological catastrophes. Some of what he witnessed was inexorable and slow, like the graying of the Beijing sky; last December, the World Health Organization ranked Beijing 1,035th, out of 1,100 international cities, in air quality. Other results of his country’s unfettered growth were horrific, like the massive flooding of the Yangtze in 1998, after years of deforestation and soil erosion. Eventually, he decided that merely telling the story was not enough. “As a media person, you look to expose the problem,” he says, “but you can’t stop there-—people are looking for answers.”
Ma founded the not-for-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in 2006. Since then, more than anyone else in China, Ma has channeled the power of the Internet and the optimism of China’s younger generation into a force for environmental change. Working with a devoted national network of young volunteers, Ma and his nine full-time staffers have compiled an open-source online database of water, air, and hazardous-waste pollution records—-in the country that generates the world’s highest emissions. Those records are damning: Over five years, IPE volunteers have helped hunt down some 97,000 records of factories operating in violation of China’s green laws. And those efforts lead to change.
“When I look at China’s environmental problems, the real barrier is not lack of technology or money,” he says. “It’s lack of motivation. The motivation should come from regulatory enforcement, but enforcement is weak and environmental litigation is near to impossible. So there’s an urgent need for extensive public participation to generate another kind of motivation.” Ma has become expert at using his database to create that motivation, especially when it comes to helping global companies police their suppliers.
His methods have won over a number of name-brand global companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing. Megan Murphy, Walmart’s international corporate-affairs manager, says, “As a result of using this database, we identified factories that need improvement and proactively worked with them to make positive changes.” After Walmart signed on with IPE, back in 2008, other large manufacturers were quick to follow. European and Japanese brands are the most avid consumers of Ma’s data, but U.S. companies including Coca-Cola, GE, Levi’s, Microsoft, and Nike also rely on IPE. “He has pushed local officials to report their environmental data and forced multinationals to be accountable for their environmental practices,” says Elizabeth C. Economy, the Council on Foreign Relations’ head of Asia studies and author of The River Runs Black, a book that chronicles how China’s environmental problems imperil its future. “In the process, Ma Jun has become one of the true pioneers of China’s environmental movement.”
A couple of years ago, Ma began what would prove to be a long and difficult journey to push one particularly significant corporation to confront problems created by its Chinese suppliers: Apple. In 2009, his team began to notice several cases of health problems due to heavy-metal pollution being reported in local newspapers. “To our surprise, the source wasn’t mostly mines or government-operated smelters,” he says, “but factories manufacturing global IT equipment.”
Around the same time, reports began to surface about factory workers suffering nerve damage after exposure to a chemical known as n-hexane, which was used in a solution to clean touch screens. Since most Chinese factories working with international corporations are operated by contractors, Ma and company had to do some sleuthing to connect the plants with their global brands. (Not every tie required Sherlock Holmes’s powers of deduction: Some factories brag of their supplier relationships on their websites.) By April 2010, Ma had discovered 29 major tech brands using factories with hazardous operations. Eventually, Ma’s team learned that the factory with n-hexane health issues was operated by a Taiwanese company called Wintek, which had been contracted to manufacture touch screens for Apple.
Ma is a natural problem solver, dedicated and coolly rational. Those are critical personality traits for effective advocates in China, where aggressive tactics like sit-ins and demonstrations are quickly met with government crackdowns. Ma’s strategy is calmer. His first step is to contact corporate decision makers, show them the data, and make an energetic argument about the benefits of proactive change. He’s naturally cooperative, more of a Paul Newman–style activist than Ralph Nader.
In the case of the tech polluters, Ma helped organize a coalition of Chinese NGOs known as the Green Alliance to pressure the 29 companies with letters to their CEOs, including Steve Jobs. Many of the violators, including big firms like Siemens, were willing to engage with IPE. Apple, however, repeatedly refused to even confirm that it had any relationship with the factories cited, claiming that details of its supply chain were proprietary information. As part of his efforts, Ma even penned a second letter to Jobs that was coauthored by Jia Jingchuan, a 20-something worker in Wintek’s factory who was hospitalized for 10 months following n-hexane exposure. This missive, too, was ignored.
There is, of course, a point at which Ma’s patience ends–and Apple had triggered it. In response, Ma unfurled all his weapons, starting with social media, which, especially in China, can be a powerful way to direct outrage at companies ignoring their responsibilities. “If you publish something in traditional media, it’s one way,” he says. “With social media, we get all this info coming back from those who read our posts.” But Ma also knows the power of traditional media; in January 2011, he released to several newspapers a report called “The Other Side of Apple,” in which his coalition unveiled its data on factories that manufacture for Apple, as well as the company’s reluctance to address those practices. Ma also released a video he had produced, which in true muckraking fashion, interspersed clips from Apple launch events with footage of young workers suffering from n-hexane poisoning. A few weeks later, Apple published its own supplier-responsibility progress report, which for the first time confirmed the case of the poisoned workers. It did not, however, respond to Ma’s reports of environmental pollution. In turn, Ma and his coalition of environmental organizations launched a special investigation into pollution in Apple’s supply chain.
Apple’s stonewalling abated just one week after Tim Cook’s ascension to CEO last August. Hours before Ma was set to release “The Other Side of Apple II,” the results of his follow-up investigation into the company’s factories, an Apple VP told Ma’s group that it was open to a phone conference. Two weeks later, in mid-September, Apple reps met with IPE for the first time; ultimately, they agreed to work together. Through the fall, subsequent meetings in Cupertino, San Francisco, and Beijing hammered out details of Apple’s oversight of its suppliers, culminating in its 2012 supplier-responsibility progress report, which named more than 100 suppliers and cited environmental audits into 14 of them. Ma’s Green Alliance will independently verify that suppliers comply with environmental laws.
IPE’s campaign raised pressure on Apple throughout the world and earned Ma the prestigious Goldman Prize, for his grassroots efforts to protect the environment, for 2012. Apple also consented to inspections of some of the factories in its supply chain by an industry-funded group called the Fair Labor Association. The FLA released its report in late March, assessing problems with the dismal working conditions at assembly factories operated by Foxconn. “People cannot get involved in a significant way without data and transparency,” says Ma, who finds Apple’s moves promising, none more than its agreement in April to a joint audit of a circuit-board factory with IPE.
One Sunday evening in late March, a casually dressed crowd, mostly graduate students and NGO workers in their 20s and 30s–about half Chinese, half expats–waits patiently for Ma to speak inside the auditorium of the Institute Français in Beijing. A slim French woman in a black suit introduces him as “courageous and influential” before handing him a microphone. The topic of his presentation, coinciding with World Water Day, is “Water Challenges and Green Choices.”
As a speaker, Ma is no Mike Daisey, for better and for worse. His voice carries a touch of sadness, and his appeal is not highly emotional. He tells no singular tear-jerking stories, and his slides are factual: “300 million rural Chinese don’t have access to safe drinking water,” reads one; “12 million tons of crops are contaminated by heavy metals,” says another.
But afterward, one-on-one, he comes alive. Two-dozen people with questions form a line. Ma bows slightly in greeting, then listens to each with absolute intensity. Alternating between Chinese and English, he fields questions about supply-chain management, student environmental groups, and sewage treatment. This is not a corporate boardroom, but one day some of these young people may go on to do extraordinary things. If that happens, Ma will have made meaningful connections. He stays for 45 minutes, energetic and unhurried. The local papers sometimes call Ma “a warrior,” but in person his gentleness, thoroughness, and attention to small things shine through. He can’t wait until the brilliant sunlight shines on Beijing with regularity again.