博客 Blog

Protests alone will not help China protect its environment

Agitated street protests must develop into social movements that actually effect real reform, not just knee-jerk reactions, says Ma Zhong, from Renmin University of China.

Article image

A protest against a PX factory in Dalian, in East China (Image by Global Voices)

In the past decade, China has transformed dramatically. One of the biggest changes is citizens’ awareness of environmental issues, and as a result, environmental protests are on the rise. 

But the surge in the number of environmental protests must be viewed cautiously, says Renmin University Environmental Department Director Ma Zhong – naïve support will not help the environmental movement.  
 
China has made dramatic advances, but in many places industrialisation is still incomplete and income and production systems have not undergone substantive changes. However, people’s awareness has risen and citizens now demand higher standards of living and holistic lives that are fulfilling not only economically. 
 
This contrasts greatly with the situation in the USA, where industrialisation was complete and production had started to be exported to different places before citizens started to have environmental protests. 
 
This process was extremely important to the USA – moving production facilities based on the bottom line, profits increased and the environment was protected. China has no way of imitating this process and must think of creative solutions to respond to its current problems.  
 
Because of the different foundations for environmental protests in China and the USA, there is a certain degree to which the two cannot be compared. The key factors of reform are familiar – legislation, tort reform, political system reforms, citizen and NGO work, etc. All of these happened in the USA. But policy decisions in China follow different logic – is it only that policy decisions are undemocratic? 
 
Once Chinese people have taken to the streets, solving the problem picks up speed and surpasses other leverage that is used and discussions of the reform process even gain wide public participation in just a few days’ time. This is the typical style of Chinese policy making, but it’s price is too costly.
 
Is this kind of environmental policy making really legitimate? Is it effective, at all? This is a question that should be examined. 

Environmental and social responsibility lacking
 
Among present environmental movements in China, another question that deserves reflection is the distinction of public and private matters. In the “mass incidents” that have already happened, it’s easy to see that people take care of issues that affect their homes and personal lives, but with regard to other issues, there is an obvious gap in public concern. 
 
For example, in the Bohai oil spill, on the surface it seemed there was concern for the wellbeing of the local fishermen, but there wasn't a reaction from Beijingers, Shaghainese, and Guangzhou residents. This doesn’t make sense – the ocean environment is a natural public resource that affects everyone and a coastal environmental crisis also affects mainlanders. 
 
When the same kind of coastline oil spill happened in America, BP had to pay billions of dollars. But in China, only when extreme public pressure is exerted on the culprit is there a reaction and responsibility finally acknowledged. 
 
Another example of the lack of public concern for greater environmental and social issues is coal mining. Today China relies on coal for 70% of its energy. Every year, thousands of lives are lost in the coal industry. Compensation for miners who die is 200,000 rmb, but even these accidents and costs have not aroused a response from the Chinese public. 
 
If China were to go by America’s standards of compensation, many coal mines would be forced to close and the price of coal and other energy resources would increase.
 
For many Chinese people, pollution, incineration factories and chemical plants at their own doorstep are intolerable, but their consciousness of the environment stops there. People do not feel miners who die in coal mines have any direct connection to them, or that accidents like the Bohai oil spill relate to their personal lives. This lack of public concern and wellbeing is the current standard, and this kind of attitude is shortsighted and narrow.
 
Environmentalists need to work especially hard to encourage environmental movements and awaken people’s environmental consciousness. Getting the public to have a stronger feeling social responsibility is long-term work. But encouraging current concerns of the public can be a base for social movements that actually effect real reform, not merely get a group of agitated people protesting in the streets.

 

Translated by chinadialogue volunteer Marta Casey.

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

这恰恰是值得高兴的开端

中国人在环境保护方面缺乏意识和参与热情,如今有人上街,虽然只是为了自己家门口的事,但却是值得高兴的起步;做为环保人士,对公众的每一个微小进步都应该予以肯定和支持,怎么竟会写出这样的文章?

This happens to be a very delightful beginning

The Chinese has long been lacking awareness and passion for environmental protection. Now some people are taking to the streets. Though it only happens when their own interests are concerned, it's still a very delightful beginning. As environmentalists, we should encourage and support the public's every little step forward in environmental protection. How can you write such an article?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

同意作者的观点

在中国,动员公众参与环境问题还有很长的路要走。但是,街头的抗议行动可以视为漫漫长路的开端。

Agree with the author

It is a long way to go to moblize public participation in environmental issues in China. However the street protest can be seen as a start.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

“狭隘和短视”这个评价是不贴切的

人们为了维护自己的利益走上街头,这本身已经是就是一种正常的现象。只有关乎到人们切身利益的问题才可能最大限度的动员起一次有效的集群行为,在中国这种民间组织尚不成熟的社会,集群行为更要依赖于人们的不满心理和反抗情绪。另外,这不是一种决策机制,只是因为正常渠道下公众无法参与到公共政策制定的环节中来,才不得不采取这样的体制外行动,批评这是一种成本过高的中国式决策机制恐怕是有问题的。

"Narrow-minded and short-sighted". This description is not appropriate

The people took to the streets in order to protect their own interests, which in itself is a normal phenomenon. This only relates to the vital interests of the people who can maximize the potential of mobilizing effective cluster behavior. Civil society organizations in China are not yet mature. The cluster behavior depends on people's dissatisfaction and revolt. In addition, this is not a decision-making mechanism. Simply because the public cannot participate in public policy making through normal channels, they were compelled to take action outside the system. Criticizing the system has a high cost and is problematic.