Chinese ‘Erin Brokovich’ on her struggles and triumphs

By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly

Litigator Jingjing Zhang is known as the “Erin Brokovich” of China because she often represents people from rural areas in enforcing environmental laws. Photo provided by Changdong Zhang.

Litigator Jingjing Zhang is known as the “Erin Brokovich” of China because she often represents people from rural areas in enforcing environmental laws. Photo provided by Changdong Zhang.

Born in December 1969, Jingjing Zhang followed an unlikely career path for a Chinese woman.

She is known for her environmental activism and was recently recognized as the 2009 distinguished Severyns-Ravenholt Lecturer, where she spoke to more than 100 people about her life’s work and achievements.

Inspired by students’ pursuit of reform between 1985 and 1989, Zhang realized that she wanted to become a lawyer during college. She got involved with environmental litigation in 1999 when she joined the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims in China, where she currently serves as its director.

By enforcing environmental laws and empowering people, she believes that Chinese citizens are able to achieve social justice.

She was dubbed the “Erin Brockovich of China” for representing pollution victims in rural areas of China.

She participated in the first successful environmental class action suit against a chemical company that discharged toxic substances in Fujian province. Because of her efforts, Zhang is considered a pioneer in her field.

Though she has won many high-level cases, Zhang has admitted that she can’t win every case, and she is forced to give up on some of them.

For example, she approached the Tuo River community in Sichuan province, but the citizens did not want to go up against large pollutant corporations because they thought they could not win because they perceive the economic gap between the rich and the poor in China to be too great, and there is no way around the Chinese court system.

One of Zhang’s most memorable cases was one against the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning and the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau. Zhang represented the community to sue the two government agencies.

She said that they didn’t win the case, but it was an important case because it illustrated the community as an active player in the environmental movement.

Her ultimate goal as an environmental lawyer is to bring lawsuits in the public interest and to show audiences what the “real” China is like.

However, Zhang sees the changes made in the court system last year with the Chinese Supreme Court as a step backward in the judicial reform. Though she is pessimistic about the system, she is still optimistic about the future of the environmental movement.

“I believe in the Chinese people,” Zhang said, believing that the Chinese are the driving force for any social movement.

Zhang hopes to become the leading lawyer in environmental law and climate change, to be a model for other Chinese lawyers to develop a similar law practice.

When asked about the most challenging part of her job, she described the trial sessions.

“Every moment in the court room is challenging,” she admitted. Facing the defendants and lawyers is difficult because there is obvious tension between both parties, and opponents treat each other like enemies.

On top of facing her opponents during the trial, she said that the research and preparation done before every trial takes a lot of time because a lawyer needs to know his or her information thoroughly.

For her cases, Zhang has to memorize every detail, know all the environmental standards, and have the ability to express ideas clearly for the case.

Even though her work is exhausting, she says meeting people in the communities she is helping is not psychologically stressful at all.

Besides her legal work, Zhang enjoys volunteering for a local organization that her friend started called the 512 Children’s List. The nonprofit organization helps fund prosthetic body parts for children who became amputees during the Sichuan earthquake that took place May 12, 2008.

Zhang is currently finishing her two-year world fellowship at Yale University. ♦

Nina Huang can be reached at

One Response to “Chinese ‘Erin Brokovich’ on her struggles and triumphs”

  1. Erin Brockovich was not an officer of the court. She did not wash the dirty linen of her country’s system of justice in the media of other nations. Hence, the analogy with her of this Chinese activist is inappropriate. I wonder which country’s legal system can compare favorably with China in terms of incisive intervention in the cause of the people and the environment. We may criticize China for harsh sentences meted out to those who have been negligent in matters such as food safety, but the allegations in this article that suggest that China is slow to act on matters of public safety will not hold water. Pollution is not the exclusive preserve of corporations and factories. Small agrarian land owners degrade soil and water just as much, albeit in hapless and ignorant ways.


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