Written by Lei Xie.

China, like many parts of the world, has seen intensifying environmental degradation put traditional state-led governance under increasing strain, even as it is prompting new forms of governance that cross over state and non-state boundaries. The recent documentary film directed by Chai Jing represents an eye-catching challenge from an individual citizen. How far do individual Chinese show a willingness to act, either through sanctioned or non-sanctioned pathways, and become involved in environmental governance?

Are Chinese concerned about the environment?

Although individuals in China are becoming increasingly well-informed, environmentally-aware and information-demanding, public attitudes toward environmental governance is ambiguous. Perhaps the most common public attitude toward political participation over the environment in China today is encapsulated in the category of ‘no response’. Such an attitude can occur even among relatively well-educated and better-off urban residents. This can be seen, for example, in survey results that suggest that despite rising environmental awareness, many citizens have tended not to change their behaviour in keeping with a greener lifestyle, albeit perhaps also swayed by a lack of appropriate infrastructure development (e.g. dealing with waste separation and disposal at a household level). Often, what is seen is a scenario where government reticence about public input is matched by relative or total public indifference to the environmental policy area in question. A prime example is climate change policy. This is dominated by the central authorities with little involvement from either the general public or through institutional intermediaries such as environmental NGOs. For one thing, there is no interest on the part of the Chinese state to involve the public on a highly sensitive international issue in which China stands now as the world’s greatest annual emitter of greenhouse gases. For another thing, a wider public (or a good proportion of it) that is today firmly attached to the multifaceted benefits linked to the nation’s economic production and consumption choices is arguably not at all receptive to addressing ‘global’ environmental problems and China’s role therein.

The public offers no response while the government plays a dominant role in governance even as it solicits public input on diverse environmental matters. Public ‘passivity’ here can be complex and typically reflects location-specific considerations. Partly, it may reflect traditional fears of a coercive response from the state if public input deviates from the expected path. Partly it may also reflect a genuinely non-committal attitude on the part of the public. For example take the case of official campaigns to disseminate knowledge about, while providing financial incentives and technical support for public uptake of ‘green’ technologies. Here, people have shown little interest reflecting a low level of enthusiasm for green consumption practices in general in a country still undergoing a first phase of unbridled individual consumerism.

Who and when do individual citizens have green concerns?

A diverse set of values and beliefs can be seen among Chinese individuals in relation to the environment. One facet of their environmental identity resembles early environmental movements in the West where the main concerns were about nature conservation and environmental education. Another aspect to environmental identity reflects a wider tendency linked to perceptions about what is valuable in Chinese culture and society. A third aspect that is widely shared among the general Chinese public stems from increasing awareness of rights and how these relate to the need to protect the environment. Here, individuals can show growing rights awareness and assertiveness in articulating their interests which can feed through in complicated ways to a more general engagement in environmental governance. Their willingness to act can be seen linked to the development of a larger sense of political citizenship, something that can generate interest in policy discussions. Such citizenship does not usually follow neat urban-rural lines. It can be argued that ‘thick’ citizenship has emerged in different rural groups around the country precisely through the assertion of political rights against the state.

How are environmental protest organised?

In this regard, individual Chinese adopt a mixture of forms of public action. Key to understanding China’s environmental movements today is recognizing that a growing cohort of citizens is adopting pro-active environmental behaviour of one sort or another which in turn is driving the participatory agenda. Especially with regard to contentious issues, collective action is becoming the norm as activists draw on institutional and non-institutional forms of action. Cases where the public seeks to use official channels but is rebuffed usually fizzle out, but they can also morph into direct and open opposition to a specific government environmental policy. This set of dynamics is typically seen for instance in popular campaigns against the planning of and/or operation of waste incineration facilities.

Public ‘passivity’ is complex and typically reflects location-specific considerations. It represents one situation amidst an increasing interplay between political participation, environmental movements and state practices in contemporary China. A shifting governance arrangement is visible, reflecting and reinforcing both public attitudes towards political participation and government responses to such participation by the public.

Lei Xie is Lecturer in Politics at University of Exeter. Image credit: CC by John Lillies/Flickr.