The Environment 环境

This Lexicon item was contributed by Isabel Hilton, founder of and The Third Pole.

This lexicon entry consists of the following sub-sections:


The thirty years of rapid carbon-heavy growth that followed the re-launch of China’s reforms in 1992 produced an economic boom that has been hailed both as an economic miracle and as the most successful poverty reduction program in modern human history. But as China attempts a transition to a more sustainable path of development, the accumulated costs of the growth model the country had previously followed are increasingly evident. Every facet of China’s natural and human environment has been compromised.

China’s environmental crisis is also a crisis of governance which has the potential of destabilising development plans and their outcomes. To date, this crisis has undermined trust on the part of citizens in the authorities, affected people’s quality of life at a time of rising expectations and degraded the ecological services needed for society to thrive.

China’s industrial revolution followed the path first taken by Great Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: one that was later adopted by all industrialised countries. This was a path that required carbon-intensive energy use combined with heavy exploitation of raw materials. The damaging legacy of successive industrial revolutions of this type is now well understood, and most developed countries have not only recognised the environmental damage that accompanied this model of development but are now actively seeking to control and minimise the damage.

It is also well-recognised, however, that the environmental damage sustained is disproportionately worse in the early stages of economic growth. China’s relatively weak starting position – low levels of available natural resources, energy, land and water, combined with a large population, extremely rapid, large-scale industrialisation and uneven distribution of benefits – has brought the country relatively early to an environmental crisis that now threatens to exceed the government’s capacity to manage it or to remedy the effects. If these problems are not successfully dealt with, they will continue to pose a serious threat to human health and future prosperity in China.

The crisis is manifest in air quality, water quality and availability, soil contamination, desertification, food safety and biodiversity and its impacts are seen in growing rates of cancer and respiratory disease. The state of the environment — and anything a sensitised and concerned public might judge to pose a further threat to it — has become an important cause of social unrest. In China’s expanding cities, citizens are increasingly willing to take to the streets to mark their discontent with a deteriorating quality of life.

In the last two years, this public anxiety has been focused, among other things, on air quality in China’s major cities, and has generated a mistrust of official environmental information. The government was unwilling to publish figures for the smallest and most dangerous airborne particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, implicated in 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010 alone, until it was finally forced to do so by public demand, and by the increasing availability of handheld digital air quality monitors. In a particularly severe episode in January 2012, levels of PM2.5 in Beijing reached 291 parts per million; in January 2013, concentrations soared to 900 ppm, 40 times the levels the World Health Organisation regards as safe.

Water might have been an equally important focus of public concern: China suffers from a low per capita allocation of fresh water — just 450 cubic metres per person per year, although severe water stress is usually defined as an annual 1000 cubic metre per capita. China also suffers from an acutely unbalanced distribution of such water as exists: most of northern China — which produces 40 per cent of the country’s GDP and houses half the population— enjoys only one fifth of the available water, while south of the Yangtze River, floods are frequent. Beijing sits in the dry north and is the world’s most water-stressed capital, with just 100 cubic metres of water per person per year. As the city has expanded over the last twenty years, chronic over-extraction has lowered Beijing’s water table by 300 metres. The impacts of these acute shortages are exacerbated by continuing, severe pollution of ground and surface water, which the government has, to date, failed to control.

In June, 2013, the government’s annual assessment of the state of China’s environment confirmed what its citizens already felt they knew. The People’s Daily headline about this assessment read: ‘2012 China Environmental Bulletin shows environmental situation is still grim’ 2012中国环境状况公报: 显示环境形势严峻依旧.

The report made for sobering reading: there had been a ‘marked deterioration in China’s air, water and land quality’; more than fifty-seven percent of the groundwater in 198 cities inspected in 2012 was ‘bad’ or ‘extremely bad’; more than 30 percent of the country’s major rivers were ‘polluted’ or ‘seriously polluted’; seven of the country’s nine most important coastal bays had bad water quality and twenty-five percent of monitored lakes and reservoirs were suffering from eutrophication.

The air in only twenty-seven out of 113 key cities reached air quality standards in 2012 and at the beginning of 2012, heavy smog blanketed more than 1 million square kilometres for several days, affecting the lives and health of hundreds of millions of people. The report did not detail the figures that now arouse the keenest interest in China’s city dwellers during such episodes: the concentrations of PM2.5.

The report found that it was not just China’s cities that were suffering. Although rural areas attracted less attention, environmental problems in the countryside had become increasingly apparent, with pollution from mining, domestic waste, intensive livestock and fertiliser as the main sources. The 798 pilot villages monitored in the previous year all suffered varying degrees of drinking water and surface water pollution. Of 452 counties monitored, the ecological environment was classified as ‘fragile’ in 101, or more than twenty-two percent. The year had seen 542 national environmental emergencies, five of which were classified as major.

Missing from the report was news of one of China’s most threatening and intractable environmental problems: the accumulated poisoning of agricultural land from industrial pollution, contaminated irrigation water and over-use of chemical fertilisers. Officials from the Ministry of Environmental Protection have described the findings of a five year soil pollution study that cost 1 billion yuan (around US$160 million) as a ‘state secret’.

The true extent of China’s soil pollution, therefore, remains unclear though some researchers have claimed that up to 70 percent of China’s agricultural land is affected. It is a particularly sensitive topic in a country repeatedly rocked by food contamination scandals. In April 2013, Zhuang Guotai 庄国泰, head of the ecological department of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, told a conference in Beijing that the soil survey had exposed the environmental price that the countryside had paid for the doubling of grain production in the previous three decades: remnants of toxic heavy metals, traces of a pesticide banned in the 1980s and residues from the chronic over-use of fertiliser. Soil remediation is a difficult and expensive process and China’s State Council has promised to establish a nationwide system to protect soil from pollution, but not until 2020.

The Chinese government has repeatedly declared that protection of the country’s battered environment is a national priority and the deepening urban air pollution crisis triggered a flurry of policy initiatives in 2013. From mid-June, a series of regulations aimed at controlling air pollution were announced, China’s first carbon market was proclaimed, the prosecution of environmental crimes was to be made easier and local officials were told they were to be more accountable for air­ quality in their areas. At the same time, the government promised US$275 billion of spending on cleaning up air pollution over the next five years, a sum that equates to twice the annual defence budget.[1]

In October, Beijing’s city government unveiled a further round of measures, from restricting the number of cars on the road on any given day to closing schools, to be implemented only in the event of air quality emergencies. A few days later, air pollution triggered by the start of the winter heating season brought Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, to a virtual standstill with closed schools, paralysed public transport and grounded planes.

A new and tougher draft environmental protection law came up for its third reading before the bi-monthly session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in October, but the vote was postponed as legislators called for harsher actions to protect the already heavily polluted environment. The law had not been revised since its passage in 1989, despite China’s deepening environmental crisis and the government’s apparent inability to reverse the trend. The draft amendment reiterated the call for more responsibility and more spending on environmental protection at all levels of government and increases the weighting of environmental protection in governmental performance evaluation. It also included a contentious proposal to limit severely the civil society groups that were entitled to bring environmental lawsuits.

Despite the raft of new measures, improving Beijing’s air quality — a sensitive task for a government that likes to boast of the capital as a world city — will not be easy. Beijing’s smog, for example, is largely fed by emissions from poor quality automobile fuel and from coal fired power stations. Both sources are projected to increase for at least a decade.

In addition, approximately twenty-five percent of Beijing’s pollution comes from the surrounding province of Hebei, where authorities have proved reluctant to close down industrial plants and sacrifice jobs, just to ease life in the capital. Hebei already hosts most of the industrial and power plants that were moved out of Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games. It now seems evident that they were not moved far enough to ensure tolerable air quality in the nation’s first city. The province has demanded a cash transfer of two billion yuan (US$330 million) in compensation for a pledge to close some of its steel and cement plants and to cut its coal usage.

Cleaning up the capital is important for China’s prestige, but as the 2012 report makes clear, China’s environmental problems are nationwide. In 2007, the World Bank estimated that pollution was costing China about 5.8 percent of GDP each year, without factoring in future impacts from climate change, which is already contributing to expanding deserts and spreading drought. Today, as the government attempts to stimulate growth in the still relatively impoverished Western regions, moving heavy manufacturing and mining westwards from coastal areas, environmental damage is spreading to the more fragile ecosystems of Tibet and Xinjiang, and to the richly bio-diverse province of Yunnan. As each year goes by, China’s environmental costs are rising. The question that China’s people are asking is, will the governments measures work, and if so, how soon?

Official Views

In his inaugural address in March 2013, the prime minister, Li Keqiang 李克强, said: ‘It is no good having prosperity and wealth while the environment deteriorates.’ Then, in a neat reflection of the contradictions in China’s approach to environmental protection, he added that it was just as bad to have ‘poverty and backwardness in the midst of clear waters and verdant mountains’. In the long running contest between GDP growth and environmental protection, growth has consistently come out ahead.

The Chinese government can, however, list a long series of environmental protection measures, regulations and laws as evidence of its environmental concerns. Back in 1996, in its White Paper on environmental protection, the government stressed that environmental protection was an important aspect of improving living standards and quality of life. The government aimed, the paper said, to promote coordinated development between the economy, society and the environment and it recognised that prevention and control of pollution and the rational utilisation of natural resources were of vital importance to China’s long term development.

Measures listed in support of this policy included: making environmental protection a basic national policy; formulating the guiding principles of balancing development for economic returns, social effects and environmental benefits; putting prevention first, emphasising polluter responsibility and intensifying environmental management; enacting environmental protection laws and regulations; formulating strict law-enforcement procedures and increasing the intensity of law enforcement so as to ensure effective implementation; incorporating environmental protection into national economic and social development, introducing to it macro regulation and management under state guidance; increasing environmental protection input so as to ensure coordinated development; establishing and improving environmental protection organisations under governments at all levels; bringing into full play the government’s role in environmental supervision and administration; promoting environmental education, environmental science and technology and promoting international cooperation.

China participated in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, at which participants declared that sustainable development should be the strategy for the future. Two months later, the Chinese government advanced ten measures to enhance its environment and development as evidence of the fact that China was, indeed, choosing sustainable development. This was followed in 1994 by the approval of the Agenda 21 White Paper on China’s Population, Environment, and Development in the 21st Century. Again, the document stressed sustainable development and put forward China’s overall strategy, measures and a program of action. Two years later, at the Fourth Session of China’s Eighth National People’s Congress, the Ninth Five Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and the Outline of the Long-Term Target for the Year 2010 both acknowledged sustainable development as an important strategy for China’s modernisation.

This approach was reaffirmed in the eleventh and particularly in the twelfth Five Year Plan (FYP) adopted in 2011. Environmental targets had been in evidence as far back as the tenth FYP — to increase forest coverage to 18.2 percent, to raise the urban green rate to thirty-five percent and to reduce urban and rural pollutants by ten percent compared to 2000. The eleventh FYP kept growth and development as the primary goal but also reflected some official concern with the environmental costs of China’s development model. It aimed to stimulate the growth of services, increased investment in research and development, and set a number of related targets, including a twenty percent reduction in energy consumption per unit of GDP over the five years of the plan, a thirty percent reduction in water consumption per unit of industrial added value, an increase of the coefficient of effective use of water for irrigation from 0.45 percent to 0.5 percent, a further 1.8 percent increase in forest coverage and a ten percent reduction of major pollutants.

Some of the methods used — the closure, for instance, of small and inefficient coal fired power plants — addressed more than one target. Nevertheless, the eleventh FYP’s energy density and pollution targets suffered from a continuing stress on growth and a lack of effective enforcement.

By the time the draft twelfth FYP was under negotiation, China’s environmental and sustainability crisis demanded a significant change of course. After thirty years of breakneck growth with all its negative environmental consequences, the twelfth FYP signalled a more robust ambition in the leadership to make the difficult transition to a more sustainable model. At a similar stage of development, Japan, Korea and Taiwan had all made the transition to higher value, cleaner, more innovative and more technologically advanced economic models, much as China is trying to do under the twelfth FYP. In China’s case, the urgency was the greater because three decades of damage to water, air, soil and human health had begun to have important consequences for social and political stability.

In November 2012 at the Eighteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the concept of ‘ecological civilisation’ 生态文明 was included in the newly revised Constitution of the Party, and calls were made for accelerated action on environmental improvement. In March 2013 at the National People’s Congress, these points were reiterated. Since then, China’s leadership has regularly highlighted its intention to build a ‘beautiful China’ and an ‘ecological civilisation.’

In many of their speeches, both the former president, Hu Jintao 胡锦涛, and the former prime minister, Wen Jiabao 温家宝, had stressed the importance of environmental protection and the current incumbents, President Xi Jinping 习近平 and Premier Li Keqiang have continued to do the same.

On 24 May 2013, for instance, Xi Jinping led the Politburo’s sixth group study session on the construction of an ‘ecological civilisation[2]‘, emphasising in his speech that the relationship between economic development and protection of the environment must be correctly managed; green, circular and low-carbon development should be more consciously promoted; and the environment must not be sacrificed for temporary economic growth.

He threatened severe punishment for those who failed to protect the environment and public health and stressed that the construction of an ecological civilisation required the strictest implementation of environmental regulations . He warned that officials would be held accountable for projects which had grave negative outcomes, regardless of whether or not the official had moved on.

‘Ecological civilisation’ now figures as one of China’s five most important policy areas, along with social progress, economic progress, political progress and culture.

Contending views within China

In 2006, Pan Yue 潘岳, a Vice Director in what was then the Environmental Protection Bureau (later the Ministry of Environmental Protection), predicted, in an interview of unprecedented frankness with the German magazine Der Spiegel, that China’s environmental crisis would bring China’s economic miracle to an end:

Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than twenty percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China.

…Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between eight and fifteen cent of our gross domestic product, and that does not include the costs for health…

Pan Yue went on to predict that China would need to resettle 186 million residents from twenty-two provinces and cities because of environmental stress and that, despite government efforts at pollution control, advocates of rapid growth continued to dominate Beijing’s policies. It was a mistake, he said, to assume that ‘economic growth will give us the financial resources to cope with the crises surrounding the environment, raw materials, and population growth‘ because

there won’t be enough money, and we are simply running out of time. Developed countries with a per capita gross national product of $8,000 to $10,000 can afford that, but we cannot. Before we reach $4,000 per person, different crises in all shapes and forms will hit us. Economically we won’t be strong enough to overcome them.

It was the last outspoken interview that Pan Yue gave to a foreign publication but his predictions have never seemed more pertinent.

Despite repeated statements of intent by government and a flurry of laws and regulations, China’s environment continues to deteriorate and the gap between regulation and implementation remains wide. According to the 16th Article of the Environmental Protection Law, ‘the local people’s governments at various levels shall be responsible for the environment quality of areas under their jurisdiction and take measures to improve the environment quality.’ In fact, although local governments have the power to allocate resources to environmental protection, conflicts of interest mean that they frequently lack the motivation, local officials are rarely rewarded for investment in environmental protection, and the system fails to punish polluters as it should.

Until recently, neither China’s national or local government officials really prioritised environmental protection and GDP remained the key evaluation criterion for local officials’ performance (Chen et. al. 2005; Li and Zhou 2005). Local officials sought to boost their local economies through attracting dirty industries, but since protecting the environment did little to help their political career (Wu et. al. 2013) they had little incentive to do so.

Rapid economic growth, therefore, has trumped environmental protection in China for more than three decades, a pattern reinforced by the fact that local Environmental Protection Bureaux answer not to the environment, the public, or the state, but to local power holders who may have direct stakes in industrial or commercial developments.

Xie Zhenhua 解振华, the former director of the State Environmental Protection Agency, sought to address this policy problem and the heart of China’s environmental problems by repeatedly proposing the inclusion of four indices of environmental protection in the assessments of cadres’ performance — enforcement of environment law, intensity of pollution, changes in environmental quality and public satisfaction — in order to link bureaucratic promotion with environmental protection and to encourage environmental transparency. But although there is now a nominal linkage, it remains a relatively weak lever: according to a study funded by America’s National Bureau of Economic Research, mayors in China who spent money on environmental projects such as water- treatment plants in 2000-09 were less likely to be promoted than those who invested in infrastructure. There is not yet any widespread prioritisation of environment over economic growth, and environmental protection officials complain that their agencies are weak and under-staffed, or directly under the control of local governments that may themselves be polluters or investors in polluting enterprises.

In addition, a series of factors integral to China’s party-state system hamper the ability of civic agents to mobilise in the interests of establishing a more robust form of environmental protection. These factors include the constraints under which non-governmental organisations are obliged to operate in China; the weakness of the legal and regulatory framework and the restrictions placed on press and media freedom. These constraints have served to deprive the government of potentially important tools and allies in its efforts to protect the environment.

Nevertheless, despite the difficulties they face, the green NGOs that emerged in China in the mid-1990s and proliferated in the 2000s have played an important role in environmental protection.

The first independent environmental NGO to win official recognition was the Society for Protecting Black-Beaked Gulls, which registered in 1991 in Liaoning province, but the one that was to become an important national player in environmental protection was Friends of Nature, founded in 1994. Global Village Beijing followed in 1995 and the Center for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims in 1998, all now well established and effective organisations, along with thousands of others across the nation.

Many civil society campaigns have focussed on the protection of animals, from the snub-nosed monkey to the Tibetan antelope. Others were forged in resistance to China’s excessive dam building, including the important and, for the time being, successful 2003 campaign to save the Nu River.

Today China’s environmental NGOs are increasingly sophisticated, despite the difficulties under which they operate. Organisations such as Ma Jun’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), which has mapped China’s water and air pollution using public data, the Green Choice Alliance, a consortium of activists who have tried to bring the purchasing power of the public to bear to persuade polluters to clean up, to organisations active in the provinces, such as Green Anhui and Yunnan’s Green Watershed, continue to challenge official narratives and the actions of abusive local power holders.

Some officials recognise the value of civil society action in the struggle to counter the political and economic power of China’s major polluters and they have supported the work of these organisations. Pan Yue was one official who played an important role in encouraging the growth of non-governmental organisations, greater public access to information and greater public participation in planning decisions. In 2005, for instance, in a public demonstration of the importance of both openness and participation, he held a televised public hearing on an environmentally controversial proposal to line the Old Summer Palace lake with an impermeable membrane. It was an unprecedented and highly symbolic occasion, even though it did not lead immediately to greater public participation in the majority of China’s contentious planning decisions.

The lack of opportunity for public participation is a major factor in the striking growth of urban public protest against environmental threats that began in Xiamen, a major city in Fujian province, in 2007. Citizens in the city took to the streets to protest against a planned project to build a PX plant. (PX is the abbreviation for paraxylene, also known as 1,4-dimethylbenzene and para-dimethylbenzene). The protest successfully triggered the intervention of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which mandated a new Environmental Impact Assessment that, in turn, recommended re-siting the plant.

PX is produced without protest around the world, but public mistrust of China’s chemical industry is high and not without justification. The protest in Xiamen was followed by others in Zhangzhou, Dalian, Ningbo, Xianyang, Sichuan, Jiujiang and, most recently in 2014, Kunming. Similar protests have broken out against other projects, including infrastructure projects, waste incineration plants and a nuclear re-processing plant, as China’s urban middle classes have grown increasingly active in defence of their interests.

The government has promised to relax some of the restrictions placed on civil society, but progress is extremely slow and further restrictions in some significant areas are proposed. In the draft amendment to the Environmental Protection Law which was debated in the NPC in October 2013, Wu Xiaoling 吴晓灵, a member of the NPC Standing Committee, complained that the range of subjects of public interest litigation on environmental issues was too narrow, and it was not possible for most non-profit organizations to seek litigation on environmental issues.

Several NGOs complained that the proposed amendment to the environmental law, which will define which groups would be allowed to take pubic interest environmental cases to court, would effectively bar most NGOs in China from litigating against polluting companies on behalf of the public. Under an earlier draft, only the state-aligned All-China Environment Federation would be eligible to pursue such cases. The October draft expanded the criteria but only narrowly. According to Zhang Mingqi 张明其, the vice-chairman of the NPC’s law committee, litigants would be required to be national-level environmental groups legally registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, active for at least the past five years, and possessing a ‘good reputation’. Academic experts have pointed out that this would limit the number of potential plaintiffs to about thirteen groups, all affiliated with government bodies.

Without legal protection, or the possibility of legal action, defending China’s environment can be a hazardous business. China has produced some remarkable individual environmental campaigners in recent years but many have run great personal risks in their efforts to curb pollution.

Wu Lihong 吴立红, for example, was an environmental advocate who lived by the shores of Lake Tai, in Jiangsu Province. Lake Tai was once celebrated for its scenic beauty and was meant to be under special environmental protection as a national level scenic area. Despite this, 2,850 factories and chemical plants that were permitted to site themselves around the lake from the 1990s were also allowed to discharge into its waters, resulting in a severe degradation of the lake and its immediate environment.

Mr Wu organised local residents into Defenders of Tai Lake, a grassroots organisation that monitored the water quality of the lake and its tributaries. He collected samples for 16 years, braving constant harassment by local officials and police, and filing reports to senior government officials. He succeeded in shutting down nearly 200 factories, but in April 2007 he was arrested and subsequently jailed, on charges of extortion. Shortly after his arrest, the lake suffered the worst algae bloom in its history.

Dissenting views internationally

Despite the Chinese government’s reservations about foreign interference in China’s internal affairs, a number of international NGOs (INGOS) have successfully established environmental or conservation programs in China, among them WWF and, more recently, the campaigning organisation Greenpeace. In fact, the period of reform has been marked by a significant growth in the activities of INGOs operating in China. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs’s China Charity and Donation Information Centre, in March 2012, 1,000 US NGOs, for example, were operating in China, mainly working in humanitarian aid, environmental and animal protection, and gender and labour rights. American NGOs, according to the report, have donated nearly twenty billion yuan (US$3.18 billion) to China since 1978, much of it into education and research. In view of the difficulties that Chinese NGOs face in raising money in China, overseas funding has been an important factor in the development of China’s civil society, although the receipt of such funding can expose the recipient to suspicions in the eyes of the Chinese government.

There have been occasions on which international commentary about China’s environment has proved unwelcome. On one notorious occasion in 2007, the Chinese government insisted that statistics on premature deaths caused by pollution be removed from a World Bank report entitled ‘Cost of Pollution in China’. The report had estimated that up to 760,000 people died prematurely each year because of pollution – up to 700,000 from indoor and outdoor air pollution and around 60,000 from water pollution. These figures were reportedly considered too sensitive by the government, which feared they might trigger unrest.

Media coverage

In the Maoist period, enormous damage was done to China’s environment by the economic policies pursued by Mao but none of it was reflected in the then tightly controlled state media. After Mao’s death, however, the more liberal decade of the 1980s brought the rise of outlets in which people could voice their social concerns and by the 1990s the increasing marketisation of media and growing competition encouraged the growth of investigative reporting in China, much of it focused on environmental issues. In the current century, social media have transformed the nature and the flow of environmental information.

For most of the history of the People’s Republic, however, environmental coverage was closely tied to official information. China’s first major appearance in the global environmental arena goes back to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, at a time when China was still immersed in the Cultural Revolution. Although environmental information was completely undeveloped in China, in a path-breaking initiative somewhat reminiscent of Yan Fu’s 严复 translations of Western texts in the late nineteenth century, several Chinese intellectuals and environmentalists translated Barbara Ward’s and Rene Dubos’s Only One Earth and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The following year, China’s first environmental journal, Environmental Protection 环保, was launched, its masthead embellished with calligraphy by the veteran revolutionary and scholar Guo Moruo 郭沫若.

Following the death of Mao and the beginning of China’s economic transition, ecological damage came into sharper public focus. When in 1983 the government identified the rational use of resources and protection of the environment as basic national policies, China’s official media began to report on environmental issues. By 1990, People’s Daily 人民日报, Guangming Daily 光明日报 and China Youth Daily 中国青年报 had all added environmental sections. China Environmental Sciences Press, founded in 1980, began to publish books on the environment and on 31 December 1981, the country’s first environmental television show, Animal World 动物世界, was broadcast on China Central Television (CCTV). In 1983 the first national environmental newspaper, China Environmental News 中国环境报 was launched. That same year the State Environmental Protection Agency and the UN Environment Program jointly launched the publication World Environment 世界环境.

Outside official media, the 1980s saw a vigorous campaign against the proposed Three Gorges Dam, with the well-known journalist and activist Dai Qing 戴晴 in the forefront of the the public discussion. That campaign came to an enforced end on 4 June 1989: Dai Qing was subsequently detained and the dam was built, resulting in many of the negative environmental consequences the dam’s opponents had predicted.

The Rio earth summit in 1992 gave a further boost to environmental coverage in Chinese state-directed media as reporters from Xinhua, People’s Daily, China Environmental News and Science and Technology Daily reported from the conference, stimulating local media to increase their own environmental coverage. The following year, fourteen central government ministries and commissions, including the Environmental and Resources Protection Commission of the National People’s Congress, the Film and Television Bureau and the Propaganda Department of the State Council jointly launched the Chinese Century of Environmental Protection 中国环保世纪行, a top-down information campaign that used newspapers, radio, television, public information posters and the Internet in an attempt to familiarise the public with the principles of environmental protection and sustainable development.

China’s media today are much less controlled than in earlier times, but are still expected to conform to government priorities and official perspectives. Historically, this has meant that media coverage of the environment in state- directed media, especially print media, has reflected the official position both in the framing and selection of issues.

A recently conducted content analysis of environmental coverage in the People’s Daily (Huang He et al) is illustrative of the phenomenon: between 2003 and 2012, the paper published around 200 articles a year on environmental topics, with the exception of the years 2006 and 2007, when coverage was increased to reflect the tenth Five Year Plan for national environmental protection and initial discussions around the eleventh Plan.The perspective of the paper’s coverage closely followed that of the government’s: reports on the current status of environmental protection, environmental protection measures, environmental protection achievements, and positive reports accounted for sixty-two percent of the output, despite China’s steadily deteriorating environmental conditions, increasing public anxiety and growing civil society activism. Neutral coverage accounted for another thirty percent and articles that reported on existing problems or obstacles to environmental protection only made up eight percent. The newspaper, the researchers observed, always reflected a positive view of government, whether in its handling of routine environmental issues or of environmental emergencies. Enterprises tended to appear in a negative light, frequently blamed for pollution and waste. Other sectors barely appeared at all as the newspaper’s main information sources were government departments. China’s rapidly proliferating environmental NGOs, independent activists and the general public were ignored.

As environmental protection became a key government policy, officially endorsed environmental reporting expanded. Today, newspapers, radio stations and television channels regularly air environmental programs, and reports such as CCTV’s Green Space, China Educational TV’s Environmental Focus, Shandong TV’s Homeland, Hebei TV’s Green Homeland, Hubei TV’s Lucky Global Village, Beijing TV’s Green Economics, Jiangsu TV’s Green Report, and Phoenix TV’s Our Shared Planet, all focus on communicating and reinforcing the official message on environmental protection. (S. Dong)

There was, at the same time, an important, parallel trend in environmental reporting that grew out of the particular combination of journalism and activism that was a feature of the late 1990s and early 2000s in China. This phenomenon helped environmental coverage to grow beyond the transmission of official messages to become a vehicle for campaigning and investigative journalism. A key figure in the growth of independent environmental journalism, as in other civil society phenomena, was the journalist-turned-official, the then EPA Vice Minister, Pan Yue (see above). Pan, a prolific writer, used his position to encourage both environmental journalism and the growth of an environmental civil society. His promotion of greater public access to information, open Environmental Impact Assessment processes and public involvement in environmental decision making were all radical ideas in China at the time. It was Pan who pioneered the discussion of ecological civilisation 生态文明, which was subsequently adopted as a central government policy.

The close relationship between journalism and activism in this period was striking: it was a journalist, Liu Detian 刘德天, who founded the Association for the Protection of Black-Backed Gulls in 1991 (see above); another journalist Liao Xiaoyi 廖晓义 who founded Global Village of Beijing. Ma Jun, 马军, the founder of IPE, and Wang Yongchen 汪永晨, whose Green Earth Volunteers is one of China’s biggest and most influential environmental NGOs, were also journalists. Moreover, Liu Jianqiang 刘建强, a journalist who campaigned in the Nu River dam effort, is now’s Beijing editor. In the early to mid 2000s, these journalist-activists were instrumental in raising awareness of important environmental issues in the public mind and challenging official accounts about the benefits of industrial and urban development. They formed their own associations and continued to educate themselves and others on environmental issues. Today they are in the forefront of environmental thinking in China.

With the rise of digital media, especially social media in the last five years, the government has lost its traditional monopoly of news. The most popular micro-blogging site Sina Weibo, launched in 2010, had attracted more than 500 million registered users by 2013, with 100 million messages posted daily. In the new media age, any member of the public with a mobile phone can break a story, and the public has acquired a new power to scrutinise and expose government abuse through postings on micro-blogs that can be forwarded hundreds, thousands or millions of times, accumulating influence as they go. During Beijing’s ‘airpocalypse’ in January 2013, for example, there were 2.5 million posts on the subject of smog.

New technology has thus facilitated the rise of citizen journalism, a phenomenon that has also made its mark in environmental reporting. In early 2012, Liu Futang 刘福堂, a retired forestry official, became the first winner of’s citizen journalism award, a new category in the organisation’s annual environmental press awards.

Liu had worked in the provincial forest fire prevention department in Hainan, rising to be director of the forest fire prevention bureau. He had developed an expertise in deforestation in his career and was not afraid to challenge logging companies on their poor environmental practices. With his retirement in 2007, Liu became a citizen activist, continuing to campaign for better environmental monitoring. His efforts became more urgent after 2010, when the central government declared Hainan an ‘international tourism destination,’ and tourist-related development began to threaten the island’s mangroves.

Liu opened a micro-blogging account under the name, ‘Hainan Liu Futang‘ in 2011, painstakingly writing blog entries by hand and posting them using recognition software. His efforts attracted national media attention, but his account was shut down by authorities in May of 2012, and in July, local police removed the 63-year-old Liu from a hospital where he was receiving treatment for diabetes to charge him with ‘crimes related to conducting an illegal business.’ His ‘crime’ was to distribute copies of his self-published book, Hainan Tears 海南泪. He received a hefty fine and three years’ probation, with a strong warning to discontinue his environmental campaigning. While Liu was in detention, the building of a power plant against which he had campaigned resumed. Not all citizen journalists are as successful or as heavily persecuted as Liu Futang, but his example serves as an important counterpoint to official media narratives of ‘ecological civilisation’.

Areas of Interest

China’s pervasive environmental crisis has begun to affect many aspects of social and economic activity in the People’s Republic. Concern for the environment, and the search for policy responses, has also had a positive impact on certain aspects of regulation, notably in the field of access to information.

In January 2007, the Chinese State Council introduced its first Regulations on Open Government Information 中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例, with a view to increasing government transparency. On 1 May 2008, the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s own Measures on Open Environmental Information (for Trial Implementation) 环境信息公开办法(试行)came into effect.

The measures aimed to promote pollution reduction by strengthening public involvement in environmental governance. They sought to empower people to participate in environmental supervision through demanding that enterprises disclose environmental information and violations of discharge standards.

The measures require environment agencies to disclose seventeen different kinds of environmental information including regional environmental quality, amounts of discharge and the records of polluters in various regions. The information required to be disclosed included the lists of enterprises in violation; letters, visits and complaints about pollution caused by enterprises and the results; administrative punishments, reviews, lawsuits and enforcement; enterprises that were causing major pollution accidents and incidents; enterprises that refuse to comply with administrative punishment. In addition, companies in violation were required to publish their discharge data within thirty days in the local media and register the data with the local government agency or face a fine and forced publication of their data. Agencies, in turn, were legally bound to disclose the list of polluters within twenty days. If an environment agency refuses, the public has a right to apply for administrative review.

It was landmark legislation and activists took full advantage of its powers. Many, however, were disappointed with the level of implementation and compliance, a common complaint in China. Powerful local and vested interests continue to obstruct both access to information and efforts to control pollution in China. For many local authorities, polluting enterprises are a double-edged sword: they are a source of pollution but also of jobs and revenues. Thus while local governments may be responsible for environmental protection on paper, in practice they are frequently complicit in pollution.

According to delegates to the 2013 National People’s Congress, for example, there were more than thirty serious incidents of heavy metal pollution in China in the previous three years. Many of them, the delegates pointed out, were caused by ‘regional governments blindly pursuing economic development, as well as law enforcement and supervision not being strong enough’.

One notorious case in 2010 involved one of China’s biggest state-owned companies, Zijin Mining, which had already been reprimanded by the Ministry of Environmental Protection for its failure to observe environmental protection regulations. In 2010, the company was responsible for two major pollution incidents: in the first, 9,100 cubic metres of toxic slurry from its Zijin Mountain gold-copper mine in Shangang County, in Fujian Province, burst through a tailings dam and entered the Ting river, killing four million fish. It took nine days for Zijin to admit that there had been an incident at all. Two months later, another dam burst at a Zijin mine in Guangdong province.

The pollution that resulted from Zijin’s lax standards was serious, but local indignation was tempered by the fact that Zijin Mountain mine provides seventy percent of local revenues, and most of Shangang County’s jobs. So close is the relationship with the local government that the company’s largest shareholder is an arm of Shangang County’s state-owned assets bureau, with several current or former local officials serving on the company’s supervisory board.

These intimate connections between powerful polluters and government are reflected at every level in China. If China is to control pollution, the state must recognise the pernicious effect of these relationships and take a far more robust approach to violations. So far there is little sign of this happening, and despite high level political promises, there is a high risk that China’s environment will continue to deteriorate.



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Mao Zedong boasts that in future, the view from Tiananmen Square would be ‘all chimneys’.

Dai Qing 戴晴 publishes Yangtze! Yangtze! (是否该进行长江三峡水坝的工程), a book that argued against the construction of the Three Gorges dam because of environmental concerns; she is later arrested and sentenced to 10 months imprisonment.

The Society for Protecting Black-Beaked Gulls (黑嘴鸥保护协会), China’s first legal environmental NGO founded in Liaoning province.

The Rio Earth Summit, a United Nations conference attended by 172 governments including China’s, brought environmental topics such as sustainable development into the mainstream.

The Ninth Five Year Plan covering 1996 – 2000 is published on 28 September. Sustainable development is confirmed as a national development strategy.

The number of public protests over environmental issues begins to grow. Frequency of protests subsequently increases by twenty-nine percent each year.

At the Fifteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China (12-18 September), the word ‘environment’ (环境) appears for the first time in a national congress report. The ‘huge environmental and resource pressures caused by population growth and economic development‘ was listed as a major difficulty for the nation’s future.

Also in 1997, the National Sustainable Development Report is published.

China joins the World Trade Organisation (WTO). China quickly becomes the world’s biggest manufacturer in many sectors: concrete, iron and steel, textiles and clothing; automobiles, mobile phones and others.

At the Sixteenth Party Congress held 8-15 November, President Jiang Zemin 江泽民 said that in building a xiaokang (小康 – well-off) society, the ‘conflicts between the environment, natural resources and economic and social development are becoming more apparent daily,’ stressing the need for continual strengthening of sustainable development ability, improvement of the environment, clear increases in resource efficiency, the promotion of harmony between humanity and nature and putting society as a whole onto a development path of production, wealth and environmental-friendliness.

The new premier, Wen Jiabao 温家宝, puts forward the ‘scientific view of development,’ along with the new idea of ‘green GDP’. Green GDP does not last long in official rhetoric and disappears shortly thereafter.

The Nu River campaign begins, bringing together scientists, environmental groups and concerned citizens in opposition to dam building in Yunnan province.

At the Fifth Plenary Session of the Sixteenth Party Congress 8-11 October, 2005, Wen Jiabao puts forward the ‘two-oriented’ society – one that conserves resources and is environmentally friendly, pointing the direction for local development.

Later that year China initiates circular economy trials, which emphasise sustainable development and reduction of pollution through saving resources, reusing and recycling in ten different provinces.

On 13 November, an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Jilin province releases an 80km long toxic slick into the Songhua river. The cleanup operation takes many months, resulting in media criticism of official handling of the incident that lasts throughout 2006.

The government sets tough targets for energy intensity and emissions of pollutants. As the 2010 deadline approaches, businesses and local governments that had failed to reach their goals face sanctions, leading to a spate of enforced blackouts.

On 13 December, the baiji 白暨豚 or Yangtze river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) is declared ‘functionally extinct’, after a 45-day search by leading experts in the field failed to find a single specimen.

In January, regulations on Open Government Information are introduced by the State Council.

At the Seventeenth Party Congress 15-21 October, ‘Building an ecological civilisation (生态文明)’ is confirmed as a goal.

Wu Lihong 吴立红, campaigner against industrial pollution of Lake Tai is arrested in April 2007, tried for alleged extortion of one of the polluters and sentenced to three years in prison.

1 June, a protest against a PX (Paraxylene) plant slated for a neighborhood in Xiamen, Fujian province attracts around 10,000 people and becomes the first notable citizen environmental protest of the digital age. The project was relocated ion in Xiamen.

In March China’s Environmental Protection Agency is upgraded to the Ministry for Environmental Protection.

1 May: measures on Open Environmental Information (for trial implementation) come into effect.

Lake Tai is affected by algae bloom.

8 August Beijing Olympics commence.

Circular Economy Promotion Law is adopted.

4 June, 2011 s serious oil spill occurs in the Bohai gulf.

In August, an estimated 12,000 people protest in Dalian to demand the relocation of a PX plant.

The Eighteenth Party Congress puts environmental issues higher up on the agenda and links them to performance assessments, adding environment to the four ‘platforms’ or basic beliefs announced by Hu Jintao as follows:

Resource consumption, environmental damage and ecological efficiency shall be included in systems for evaluating economic and social development, in order to establish a system of targets, evaluation and rewards and punishments that reflects the requirements of an ecological civilisation.

On 1-3 July there are protests in Shifang, Sichuan province against a copper plant; on 22 October, there are protests on Hainan island against a proposed coal-fired power plant; on 28 October there are protests in Ningbo against a PX plant.

In December, Hainan-based environmental campaigner Liu Futang 刘福堂 is found guilty of ‘illegal business activities’, and punished with a fine and suspended three year jail term.

January airpocalypse: Beijing pollution levels reach new heights, making headlines across the globe.

In May, protest in the Songjiang district of Shanghai against plans for a lithium battery factory leads to project cancellation.

Also in May, protests are held against a proposed PX plant in Kunming.

On 14 June, twenty new anti-pollution laws drafted.

In July, protesters in Guangdong win the promise of the cancellation of a uranium re-processing plant.

In October, the third reading of revisions to the Environmental Protection Law is conducted.


Ecological civilisation – Ecological civilisation was proposed by Hu Jintao, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), in his report to the Seventeenth National Congress of the CPC. It has been described as ‘an important change in the Party’s understanding of development. Rather than emphasising economic construction as the core of development as it did in the past, the Party authorities have come to realise that development, if sustainable, must entail a list of elements including the right relationship between man and nature.’

Circular economy – an industrial economy that is restorative, and in which biological nutrients reenter the biosphere safely, and technical nutrients, circulate without entering the biosphere.

Green GDP – an index of economic growth that factors the environmental consequences of that growth into conventional GDP. It requires net natural capital consumption, including resource depletion, environmental degradation, and protective and restorative environmental initiatives, to be subtracted from traditional GDP. In 2004, Wen Jiabao, announced that the green GDP index would replace the Chinese GDP index as a performance measure for government. The initiative was dropped in 2007 when the results proved politically unacceptable.

Two-oriented society – a resource-conserving and environmentally-friendly society The term was adopted in the eleventh Five Year Plan, which defined building a resource-conserving and environment-friendly society as a strategic task in the long-term plan for the national economy and for social development.

Environmental issue – any matter of concern to interested stakeholders and people regarding natural or built environment or the social environment.

Environmental event – an observable natural or human induced phenomenon that may be positive or negative or neutral as judged by those observing or measuring it.

Environmental accident – a judgmental term implying an unintended change to environmental conditions, or causing harm to economic, social or ecological situations as a result of some event.

Environmental incident – similar in meaning to an environmental accident but without the value judgement that it was an accident since some incidents are the result of planned activities; often used in safety and health reporting as well as for matters affecting ecosystems.

Environmental disaster – environmental incidents that happen at a significant scale. Sometimes modified to ‘potential disaster’ if the full dimensions are not immediately apparent.

Environmental impacts or consequences – standardised terminology used in relation to EIA and SIA, especially in relation to proposed projects, activities, and sometimes policies, in order to consider positive and negative types of effects and their potential significance and risks.

Environmental harm – legally, an action, intentionally or unintentionally causing significant damage to the environment or people. Often a term that finds its way into legislation and into court cases.

Environmental justice – the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. It recognises the unfair distribution of environmental burdens imposed on poorer and minority communities and ensures opportunities for people from those communities to be heard.

Environmental risk – a perception of, or calculated level of danger or hazard either of causing ecological, human or other damage/harm as the result of an event, project or action taking place.

Public Participation – the public’s right to be involved in every stage of the decision-making process. A technical approach to risk assessment and communication vs a broader ‘cultural experiential’ approach.




[2] See Meng Si. 2012. An Insight into the Green Vocabulary of the Chinese Communist Party. in chinadialogue ( ) for an explanation of significant environment and development terms including Ecological Civilisation.