China’s Green Awakening

Most of the headlines about China’s environment involve victims and villains. On one side are the regular people suffering from exposure to toxic rivers and contaminated food; on the other, greedy factory owners and recalcitrant officials. Not visible in that black-and-white picture are China’s emerging ranks of environmental activists—some full-time nongovernmental organization workers and others simply volunteers responding ad hoc to threats to their health and livelihood. China’s first environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, was allowed to legally register in 1994, and since then thousands more have followed in its footsteps.

A new book edited by Oxford University lecturer Sam Geall, China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, traces the evolution of green activism in China. Geall is also executive editor of the online magazine In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, he shared his perspective on civil society in an authoritarian country—and how technology changes the picture.

Who are China’s environmentalists? How would you characterize today’s green advocates?

Journalists and broadcasters founded many of China’s most prominent green NGOs—after all, they witnessed the scale of the unfolding environmental crisis. China actually has a long history of civil society, which was suppressed during the Mao era. But the past 20 years have seen a flourishing of green NGOs. Now there are thousands registered, and many more unregistered. Today all sorts of people get involved in China’s environmental campaigns, from university students and middle-class urban residents protesting against the construction of polluting petrochemical factories or incinerators, to villagers in the countryside angry about pollution ruining their crops and their health.

Have there been seminal books or events—equivalent to Silent Spring or the first Earth Day in the U.S.?

Some environmentalists equate the 1999 book China’s Water Crisis—a pathbreaking investigation by former journalist Ma Jun—with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, suggesting it sparked a greener way of thinking among Chinese readers. But there were also earlier environmental works: In the late 1990s, Tang Xiyang, another journalist turned activist, wrote A Green World Tour. Xu Gang’s Woodcutter Wake Up!, published in 1988, was influential too.

Tell us about one of most important victories won by Chinese environmental activists.

In 2004 a grassroots campaign—aided by an investigative journalist and a self-taught local activist—managed to overturn a government-proposed dam that would have flooded Tiger Leaping Gorge, an incredibly beautiful canyon in southwest China. For some Chinese environmentalists, this was one of the most inspiring and lasting victories—and a victory won by local citizens themselves.

How does social media change the equation?

Occasionally, environmental incidents will occur without being reported at all in China’s national media. For instance, a huge toxic spill in Fujian province was covered up for nine days in 2010. But thanks to the Internet and China’s changing media system, that is much more infrequent today than in the past. So there is a kind of emerging national consciousness about many green issues.

Also, many of the urban protests that have occurred in the past year were organized and documented on social media. For example, a protest against a polluting copper refinery in the city of Shifang in Sichuan province.

If environmental laws aren’t being followed in the U.S., independent groups like the Sierra Club or the National Resources Defense Council have the power to sue the EPA to force action. In China, what options exist if laws are being flouted?

China has many strong environmental laws and regulations—but this doesn’t mean they are being effectively enforced. Many Chinese environmental campaigns are focused on forcing the implementation of those laws. There have been some examples of successful legal challenges—for instance, public-interest cases where villagers have sued companies for pollution damages.

Why is public participation in environmental issues so important for China?

Without the public pressure to act responsibly, local officials will continue to chase short-term economic gains and disregard environmental concerns. A greener society needs journalists who can expose environmental problems, NGOs who can lobby for conservation measures, and lawyers who can represent communities that have been affected by pollution. That’s why citizens have been at the forefront of China’s environmental movement.

[Bloomberg Businessweek]