BEIJING — People in China who want to take industries to task for fouling their surroundings have been rushing to file complaints and lawsuits this year in a test of legal reforms that toughens environmental penalties and makes clear that many public-interest groups have the right to sue.

Environmental watchdogs say people have filed hundreds of complaints with local governments under the new law launched in January, taking advantage of requirements that authorities respond to environmental complaints or risk having the cases be bumped up to higher levels of government. State media reports say at least one complaint resulted in immediate action, when authorities in eastern Shandong province shut down the coal furnace of a rubber factory that had bothered neighbors.

Environmental groups also have filed six lawsuits that have been accepted by Chinese courts, compared with one allowed during the same period last year.

The new cases deal with everything from deforestation to illegal dumping by chemical plants, according to Zhang Boju, executive director of the nonprofit group Friends of Nature, which wrote two of the lawsuits with a grant from Chinese e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba,


In a country where officials often act above the law while willfully ignoring whole swaths of regulations, many Chinese fed up with environmental neglect say the reforms appear to be making a difference. Still, experts say, their success will depend on the continued receptiveness of the courts and local officials under pressure to curb pollution.

“The law brought predictability to the process, where before there was no certainty about what we could do,” Zhang said. “We plan to do more cases and we’re helping other environmental groups do that as well.”


Over the past three decades, Chinese leaders have prioritized economic development over environmental protections – and watched China’s skies fill with toxic haze while an estimated 55 percent of its groundwater became unsafe for human use.

Public worries about China’s pollution woes were recently highlighted with the release of an online documentary called “Under the Dome” that detailed the health and social costs of Chinese environmental degradation. It received hundreds of millions of views in just a few days, before Chinese censors removed it from streaming sites.

Over the past year, Chinese leaders have repeated that they are serious about cleaning up China’s air, water and soil. They’ve acknowledged that the country’s pollution woes are not only a central source of social instability but, with China the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, also a linchpin in the global effort to avoid catastrophic climate change.