Written by Anna Lora-Wainwright.

China’s pollution—whether it is Beijing’s airpocalypse, “cancer villages”, controversial PX plants, recent explosions in Tianjin or a plethora of other accidents and routine contamination—rarely avoids public scrutiny. The Environmental Justice Atlas, with which I am involved in covering Chinese cases, has made considerable headway in mapping instances of environmental injustice globally. It provides some sense, if still limited in scope, of the diversity of environmental contention in China (and beyond). Indeed, China’s environmentalism has evolved enormously over the past 2 decades. In its early days, environmental actors amounted mostly to NGOs which were by and large “embedded” within the Party-state, as Peter Ho put it. Their approach was non-confrontational and their activities focused mostly on biodiversity, conservation and environmental education. In this context, ENGOs relied upon the Party-State for legitimacy rather than on grassroots constituents; they focused on cultivating links with Party/State officials instead of pollution victims at the grassroots.

Significantly, some NGOs have now begun to work more closely with communities to respond to their needs—including seeking redress for pollution. In an ongoing research project on “coalitions of the weak” with Tom Johnson and Lu Jixia, we study how urban campaigners have developed links with local communities opposed to incinerators. This involves examining an evolving environmental network comprising NGO staff, journalists, lawyers, and academics that has advocated, among other things, greater environmental transparency, public participation, legal reform, and more sustainable solutions to China’s waste challenge.

Ziran Daxue, or Nature University, offers an excellent example of these innovative collaborations. Established by environmental journalist Feng Yongfeng, Nature University is committed to offering support to rural and urban communities opposed to waste incinerators and other forms of pollution. It does so in several ways. It supports mutual learning and networking among campaigners and organises events where they can share their experiences and network with activists from other locations. It assists local campaigners with securing evidence to back their claims, compiling a case and selecting a suitable strategy for action. Instead of openly advocating disruptive tactics, campaigners at Nature University (and members of the environmental network more widely) promote strategies that are officially tolerated. They encourage communities to utilise “legal weapons” as fully as possible. They also support communities’ emphasis on the “rationality” of their demands, something that both Thomas Johnson and Amy Zhang found to be prominent in their work on anti-incineration campaigns.

Emphasis on procedural failures plays an important role. In my research with Johnson and Lu on a rural community’s successful campaign to suspend the building of an incinerator in their vicinity, the turning point was campaigners’ ability to prove that the Environmental Impact Assessment had been faked. The rise of new online technologies has also enabled China’s environmentalists and citizens to collaborate, collect and disseminate evidence of pollution, voice their concerns about its environmental and health risks, challenge the environmental standards of the state and claims about environmental risks by the authorities. “Citizen science” forms an increasingly important part of these efforts. It includes crowd-sourcing to map pollution, collaborations between affected communities and experienced campaigners in collecting evidence of pollution and raising participants’ capacity and knowledge of pollution-related issues. In an initiative cunningly named “monitoring the air for my country”—no doubt an attempt to pose as patriotic—grassroots NGO Green Beagle (also founded by Feng) provided portable handheld detectors to measure air quality and upload them on the internet. Other examples include float Beijing, which used small pollution monitors fixed on kites; “China’s water safety plan” (中国水安全计划) co-sponsored by members of the media, environmental protection and legal community; the initiative “test the water quality of your hometown” (回乡测水) initiated by a number of ENGOs and media; and an open platform called “danger maps”, which resorts to crowd-sourcing and allows users and NGOs to upload their own pollution data.

Reactions to pollution, however, are more multifaceted than a focus on any single activist strategy may suggest. My research in severely polluted villages over the past decade has convinced me that there is no inevitable linear development leading from the discovery of pollution’s detrimental effects on the environment and health to the formation of collective identity, the politicisation of the local community and the emergence of resistance or citizen-expert alliances. Routine pollution and acute events (such as explosions) alarmed local residents across the villages I studied and sometimes prompted localised political acts such as small blockades, protests and petitions. However, such acts rarely escalated to higher levels, did not involve obtaining the support of scientific experts, nor did they succeed in attracting substantial redress. Studies of environmental injustice understandably tend to focus on the mechanisms through which activism develops and to examine its effects. Less attention is given to fatalism, resignation, and to the processes through which pollution becomes rooted in local communities. Alternatively, where the absence of sustained collective action receives attention, it is often explained as a direct consequence of the locality’s economic dependence on polluting activities.

In my forthcoming book, Resigned Activism: Living with Pollution in Rural China (MIT, 2017), I ask: what about communities which instead of coming together against pollution are torn apart by it? What about less visible forms of activism? What about resignation? The term “resigned activism” is intended to attend to subtle shifts in parameters and expectations and to the diverse forms of environmental engagement that they support. This comprises acts that may fit the conventional label of collective environmental contention, such as protesting at the factory gates and filing petitions. But it also includes less confrontational and more individualised or family-oriented tactics aimed at minimising pollution in one’s immediate surroundings: purchasing bottled water, closing windows, wearing masks, avoiding the jobs deemed most harmful, and temporarily sending small children and pregnant women to live elsewhere. While cosmopolitan green campaigners may not regard some of these practices as activism, I argue that they nevertheless deserve attention as alternative, resigned forms of activism and environmental subjectivity, whereby those who live with pollution have become used to its presence.

This suggestion has broader conceptual implications for the study of environmentalism. It demands that we attend to environmental concerns and environmental activism that may be present in unexpected and less visible forms. Indeed, it requires a redefinition of activism that would allow a study of these less obvious forms of engagement. These subtle forms of activism may take on even more importance at present, as China’s current leaders have tightened control on civil society and particularly on foreign-funded NGOs.

Dr. Anna Lora-Wainwright is Associate Professor in the Human Geography of China, University of Oxford, and a Fellow of St Cross College. Her work embodies a particular synergy between human geography and the study of China and focuses on environmental pollution, development and health in the Chinese countryside. She is a keen supporter of long-term ethnographic field research and since 2004 she has carried out almost 2 years of fieldwork in rural China (Sichuan province and more recently Yunnan, Hunan and Guangdong). Her work is concerned with unpacking the naturalisation of perceptions of health and pollution, how they are produced and their political economic overtones (for instance how dependence on a nearby factory might make pollution acceptable). Image credit: CC by Mohri UN-CECAR/Flickr