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Eco-activism in China

Gabriel DomínguezApril 15, 2015

As pollution levels rise, the Chinese are increasingly taking to the streets to show that environmental issues are as important as ever. But how are the authorities dealing with the growing public outcry?

China Protest gegen Chemie Industrie Projekt in Maoming

It was meant to encourage solid waste processing in the cement industry - but plans for the construction of a waste incinerator in the Chinese city of Luoding, in the southern Guandong Province, were recently scrapped following massive protests by residents that ended in clashes with the police. On April 8, the city government announced it had revoked approval of the facility "in response to public demands."

But Luoding is just the latest case of local authorities giving in to the demands of residents fearful of growing pollution levels. Similar cancellations or postponements have taken place across the vast country in recent years.

Just recently, in China's Inner Mongolia region, government officials vowed to shut down several chemical plants after protests against pollution apparently turned violent. Over the years, these protests have also addressed dead animals in drinking water and chemical plants that haphazardly dump their waste.

And last week, an explosion and hydrocarbon fire at a chemical plant in Fujian Province not only led to the evacuation of almost 30,000 nearby residents - it also raised nationwide concerns about the potential hazards of installing such facilities in densely populated areas.

Growing anger

As the Chinese become increasingly concerned about the impact of pollution on their lives and health, large and sometimes violent protests have become more common in China. This growing public dissatisfaction with the country's deteriorating environmental conditions has been greatly accelerated by the most visible challenges: namely air, water and soil pollution.

Symbolbild - Kohlekraftwerk China
Burning of coal and poor quality petroleum are the main reasons behind China's air pollutionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In fact, over the past few years China has seen repeated episodes of "airpocalypses" that have periodically paralyzed major cities.

As a result of this, environmental issues have transformed from a tie-two agenda item into something that tops the political list. "For the first time, delivering clean air and safe water became equally important as securing economic growth," Shuo Li, a Greenpeace policy officer and Alexander von Humboldt fellow, told DW.

'Source of unrest'

Chinese authorities have also become increasingly aware of the problem. In fact, a recent by China's Institute of Environmental Planning identified pollution as a major source of unrest. Researchers stated that any failure to tackle the country's vast pollution problems in the coming years could stoke public discontent and create "social conflicts."

"There is a huge gap between how fast the environment is being improved, and how fast the public is demanding it to be improved - and environmental problems could easily become a tipping point that leads to social risks," the researchers said in the report published by the official China Environmental News.

And Beijing has responded. After declaring "war on air pollution" last year, Premier Li Keqiang vowed at the opening of the National People's Congress (NPC) in March to fight environment pollution "with all our might."

The government has also passed new laws and allowed non-governmental organizations to sue companies on behalf of the public for causing pollution, creating a public environmental policing mechanism.

And while the authorities have had some success in reducing sulfur dioxide pollution in the air, experts argue that there have been few signs of progress. Recently collected data show little improvement in air quality in China's northern cities - largely due to the combustion of coal and poor-quality petroleum. Moreover, nearly 60 percent of the country's underground water is polluted, according to state media.

China Ministerpräsident Li Keqiang Pressekonferenz in Peking
Li vowed to fight environmental pollution 'with all our might'Image: Reuters/J. Lee

From street protests to the Internet

So how have the Chinese reacted? Isabel Hilton, a China expert and founder of the nonprofit organization Chinadialogue, says that over the past 20 years, ordinary citizens in China have been dealing with pollution in a number of ways.

It began in 2007 with a big wave of street protests against a factory producing paraxylene - a chemical commonly known as PX and used to make fabric - in the southern city of Xiamen. This established an example for similar protests across the country.

"They had a lot of success because local officials did not want episodes of social disorder on their records and were willing to negotiate," said Hilton. "The protesters in some cases managed to block PX plants, waste incinerators and in one case a nuclear reprocessing plant that they considered dangerous."

But there have also been other forms of civic activism. "Grassroots NGOs have been set up and people have become involved in all kinds of activities, from cleaning up rivers to tree-planting, as well as trying to put pressure on polluters," Hilton told DW.

Moreover, people have also taken to the Internet to complain about pollution and speak out against both the corporations that are responsible, and the government officials that have been reluctant to do anything to solve the problem. Rebecca Liao, a corporate attorney and writer specialized in Chinese politics and culture, confirmed this to DW.

In March, the documentary "Under the Dome" by a former CCTV anchor, about the impact of Beijing's smog on her child, got hundreds of millions of clicks just a few days after its online release.

Environmentalism is one of the few areas of activism that the Chinese government allows. According to the newspaper China Daily, as of August of last year, there are more than 300 Chinese NGOs that focused on the environment.

However, the government is also making life harder for these grassroots organizations, as they are now required to have a government sponsor in order to register as a legal entity.

"If they don't register, they cannot open a bank account. Recently there have been moves to make it much more difficult to receive money from foreign donors," Hilton said. "The government knows it needs civil society, but is also afraid of letting it get too strong."

Credibility on the line

So how successful has environmental awareness become? Analysts agree that one of the key developments of the past few years is how not only the Chinese public but also the government have come to realize that pollution is a quality-of-life issue.

And, as Hilton indicates, the government understands that its credibility and legitimacy are on the line over China's environmental crisis. "It wishes both to act and to be seen to act - and last year a new environmental protection law was adopted that greatly increased the penalties for pollution."

Local officials are hence under more pressure from the central government to reach a compromise with these protestors, to save face among the international community and insure social stability.

China Smog
Recent data showed only little improvement in air quality in China's northern citiesImage: Getty Images

As for the environmental protest movements, they have been relatively effective. While massive protests have certainly yielded results, especially in wealthier parts of the country, demonstrations targeting air and water pollution have been less successful. And hundreds of thousands of companies continue to pollute.

"The polluting companies that citizens often go up against have powerful interests that are well represented among the leadership. More often than not, protestors receive some concessions to quiet them, but few obtain their key objectives," Liao concluded.