Growth of China’s 'green public sphere' brings hope and opportunity

It all started with a stroll. In 2007, residents of Xiamen, in Fujian province, decided they didn’t want a company that made a harmful chemical called paraxylene in their city. Using text messages they arranged peaceful demonstrations. The strolls soon spread into vast street protests and before long the local government had responded to their calls and relocated the chemical plant.

Environmental justice is not the first thing that springs to mind when I think about China, but I changed my mind recently when I heard a panel of experts speak at the launch of IIED’s new book Green China: Chinese insights on environment and development.

I was cautioned by Leo Horn-Phathanothai of the World Resources Institute to question the West’s one-sided political and media rhetoric, which largely paints China as an “eco-delinquent”. I was reassured to hear Bernice Lee of Chatham House describe China’s impressive spending on research and development on green technologies. And I was inspired by chinadialogue’s deputy editor Sam Geall’s account of how a single tweet about an oil leak launched a chorus of calls for greater public access to environmental information.

Over the past three decades China’s rapid emergence as a superpower has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The country’s growth is even reflected in the children’s physical development; Horn-Phathanothai said that a six-year-old Chinese boy today weighs six kilos more and is six centimetres taller than one in 1978. But such impressive economic growth in the world’s largest country has undoubtedly led to environmental degradation on a scale far greater than anything the planet has experienced before.

While I expected to hear grim statistics and frightening stories from the panel, what I heard were messages of progress and hope, if the opportunities are seized. 

First, China’s environmental challenges are not China’s alone. They are planetary. To understand these challenges, said Horn-Phathanothai, we must recognise the interdependency between China and the West, which has been “both a participant in and beneficiary of China’s growth”. China uses 40% of its energy to produce exports. This has both driven China’s economic boom and led to a surge in greenhouse gas emissions and other, more local, forms of pollution. This interdependency highlights areas for potential co-operation.

Second, the future path of China’s emerging middle class concerns many environmentalists because of its growing appetite to consume energy and material goods. But Bernice Lee said that despite this risk, it should be seen as a double-edged sword. Its growth could also be accompanied by growing environmental awareness and greater calls for environmental action. Lee argues that a new narrative is needed, one which engages with middle-class aspirations but one which has equity at its core.

Third, China has opened access to environmental information and increasingly tolerates public participation in environmental policymaking. Its Open Government Information Regulations are considered a breakthrough in transparency. Since 2008, the Environmental Information Disclosure Decree has meant companies must disclose environmental information within 30 days of a public request. As a result information from maps, databases, air and water pollution meters, supply chains, comparative data, is now available

Sam Geall described how these changes, the use of social media, and the emergence of civil society groups have led to the growth of China’s “green public sphere”. He noted how these trends have enabled Chinese villagers to call on the central government to ‘swoop down’ on local authorities to ensure they enforce the law, for instance, for environmental impact assessments. But there’s still a long way to go. When he surveyed dozens of Chinese journalists, few were aware of the 2008 Decree, and none had used it.

There are clearly more changes to come. As Horn-Phathanothai noted, the image of China’s government as an immense monolith is no longer valid and the new environmental openness has created a space for broader public participation in other areas of policymaking. Yet with its mix of “first world and third world air pollution problems” he said there is no blueprint for what or how China must achieve greener growth.

The panellists agreed that co-operation – between China and the West, and between Chinese policymakers, scientists and civil society – was the best way forward.

Find out more from China’s leading thinkers on sustainable development: download “Green China: Chinese insights on environment and development.”

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