Written by Jingrong Tong.

In a recent book I examined environmental risk discourses constructed through environmental investigative reports and their contribution to offsetting the hegemonic discourse of modernisation promulgated by the Chinese state. I analysed the practices and outputs of environmental investigative journalism, discourses on environmental problems as well as the interaction between offline reporting and online discussion on environmental issues. I was fascinated to find that environmental investigative reports have revealed the true nature of modernisation–which is neither people nor environmentally friendly–and the link between environmental and social inequalities so that environmental risk discourses have a counter-hegemonic function.

The practice of modernisation has been quite successful in China in terms of achieving economic development and GDP growth. The prevailing discourse of modernisation is even integrated into the life and daily rhythms of Chinese people. The Chinese state has made “modernise for a better life” a major rhetorical device, which weaves a sweet and utopian dream for its people. In this dream, social inequalities are narrowed and poverty is minimised. In this dream, China is a strong nation and people are wealthy and healthy. This dream has won most Chinese people over so that pursuing modernisation becomes a hegemonic and ideological discourse legitimating the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. By propagating the myth of modernisation, the Chinese state has also managed to shift the attention of its people from political to economic reform, which reduces the chances of generating political instability and therefore consolidates the rule of the CCP.

In order to realise modernisation, China needs rapid economic growth. This need echoes global capital’s desire for international expansion. China has experienced quick industrialisation and transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial society. However, the wide range of economic activities have ignored the consequences for the environment. This negligence has generated two types of problems. First, accompanying the pursuit of modernisation is the increasing prevalence of environmental problems occurring across China. Ranging from pollution to resources exhaustion and desertification, environmental degradation has become a pressing issue that China’s authorities need to deal with urgently, as it threatens the well-being of Chinese residents. Destruction of biodiversity, pollution-linked illnesses like cancer, and food security have all become cause for concern and it is increasingly obvious that environmental problems will not go away automatically.

Second, the amalgamation of environmental and social inequalities undermines the foundation of Chinese society. Capital always craves national resources in order to maximise profits and such a desire has been indulged by the Chinese state, a result of which is the complete exploitation of nature, generating environmental inequalities and deepening social inequalities. Social inequalities in the command of natural resources result in environmental inequalities that in turn deepen social inequalities and divides Chinese society. Those privileged individuals and social groups who enjoy advantageous social resources exploit natural resources to increase their own wealth, while the disadvantaged are left to suffer the environmental damage caused by this exploitation. In many cases, the poor not only become poorer but are also vulnerable to diseases caused by environmental pollution. The situation is distressing to witness.

One response to this worrying situation has been the recent rise of environmental movements as well as environmental non-government organisations (ENGOs). From anti-PX protests to protecting snub-nosed monkeys, from Dalian to Guangzhou, many environmental campaigns have been organised and launched since the 1990s. Like those in other societies, China’s environmental movements have limitations.For example, most of them only pay attention to their own “backyard” issues. Nevertheless, proactive participation pushes environmental protection to a new level and puts pressure on the political leadership.

Chinese governments are making efforts to alleviate environmental problems in order to take off the pressure on governance brought in by environmental problems. These efforts can be traced back in the 1970s, when China attended the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Since then, environmental protection legislation and government departments have been established and regulations have also been published, including environmental policies issued to lessen environmental damage. The issue of environmental protection, for instance, was one of the main focuses of discussion at the latest legislative meetings (lianghui) earlier this year. Nevertheless, after all these years, the physical situation continues to worsen. In fact, as long as economic development and modernization remain China’s priorities, environmental problems will not be truly solved. The understanding that environmental problems have roots in modernisation may merely be the emperor’s new clothes.

Despite media control in China, investigative reporting on environmental problems has managed to expose the link between environmental problems and modernisation. Encouraging journalists to investigate and disclose environmental problems was a win-win strategy for the CCP. On one hand, investigative reporting can help the CCP to monitor and prevent wrongdoing by local authorities, institutions and individuals that damage the environment. On the other hand, exposing environmental problems facilitates journalists’ pursuit of greater autonomy, and gives them additional motivation to do so. Benefiting from this strategy, environmental investigative reporting has blossomed since the 1990s. A wide array of topics and agendas ranging from anti-deforestation to anti-dam construction have been covered and thus brought to prominence. The public’s attention is driven to environmentalism, as it is constructed in these investigative reports, and environmental awareness, which is crucial for a risk society. It is apparent from the research reported in the book that although serving the CCP’s interests, investigative reports have constructed environmental risk discourses that oppose the supreme discourse of modernisation and thus portrays the rift between modernisation and the environment.

Enjoying autonomy in covering environmental problems is only one side of the story. China has recently been stunned by the shocking reality of air pollution revealed in Under the Dome, an online documentary produced by Chai Jing, a former TV presenter and investigative journalist of renown at CCTV, which was soon censored by the CCP. Since Xi Jinping came to power, his attitude toward news media has been harsh and media organizations that are seen as intractable and uncooperative have suffered crackdowns. With these developments, the future of environmental investigative reporting is uncertain.

Jingrong Tong is Lecturer at the University of Leicester. She is the author of Investigative Journalism in China and Investigative Journalism, Environmental Problems and Modernisation in China. Image Credit: CC by Gustavo M/Flickr.