In an unprecedented legal case, a group of Chinese lawyers have charged the governments of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei with failing to protect their citizens from air pollution, which is linked to a third of all deaths in the country

Who is responsible for China’s chronic and deadly air pollution? That depends on who you ask. Officials blame the weather or outdoor barbecues, activists blame steel companies and coal-fired power plants. But Yu Wensheng blames only one actor: the government.

The 50-year-old lawyer recently launched an unprecedented suit against the authorities in three regions in China, claiming they have failed in their responsibilities. For a government with the motto “Serve the People”, Yu feels the officials are serving other interests by allowing nearly half a billion people to choke on toxic smog.

“Our bodies are being harmed because of the ineffectiveness of our government; because of their inaction and carelessness, we suffer,” Yu told the Guardian. “The pollution has affected my family, my son is coughing, I’m also coughing, and I feel the smog caused this. I am suing as a victim.”

Northern China is frequently blanketed with thick clouds of deadly smog that is linked to almost a third of all deaths in the country – and caused by steel plants, a heavy reliance on coal for heat and power generation, plus millions of cars. While the authorities have “declared war on pollution”, many feel progress has been slow and the region is still hit with a yearly bout of “airpocalypse”.

Yu and four other lawyers have filed cases against the governments of the capital Beijing, the neighbouring port city of Tianjin, and Hebei province, home to some of the country’s most polluted cities.

“If the authorities don’t accept the case or use some other method to dismiss it, it can only show the government has a bad attitude in the face of pressure from the citizens,” Yu says. “That would clearly show they don’t serve the citizens at all.”

Several in the group have been pressured by local branches of the justice ministry to withdraw the cases and another lawyer has already dropped out after he was visited by police in his hometown. But Yu is undeterred, having previously spent stints in detention, where he says he was tortured.

President Xi Jinping has made building “rule of law” a hallmark of his tenure, but critics say the ruling Communist party remains above the law and ordinary citizens still struggle for justice. The country’s top judge rejected the idea of judicial independence in a speech last month, dismissing it as a “western” notion.

In the wake of the lawyers announcing their lawsuit, China’s powerful censorship authorities issued a blanket ban on any discussion of the case – a rare edict for an environmental issue. In recent years the government has allowed some space for citizens to vent their anger over the country’s chronically toxic air.

Even government media frequently publishes articles lamenting pollution. In the midst of a week-long bout of bad air in the beginning of January, the state-run China Daily published an editorial lambasting the government for not doing enough to tackle the problem.

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