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China's Environmental Governance Challenge

Sam Geall and Isabel Hilton

On posters and banners across China's cities, the new leadership has made “Ecological Civilization” and “Beautiful China” two of its most prominent slogans. But underlying these buzzwords is a complex, unenviable, and worsening problem.

China's environmental and climate governance is at a crisis point. While China attempts to transition to a more sustainable model of development— a difficult enough process for one-fifth of the world's population—legacy political structures and associated powerful interest groups have made necessary reforms all the more difficult by restricting, rather than harnessing, the potential for citizen participation in environmental protection.

As the 2012 review from China's Ministry of Environmental Protection illustrates, creating a “Beautiful China” will be no easy task. In China's countryside, the environmental situation is “grim.” The cities and waterways are not much better: in 198 cities inspected in 2012, more than 57 percent of the groundwater was rated “bad” or “extremely bad,” and more than 30 percent of the country's major rivers were “polluted” or “seriously polluted.” The air in 86 out of 113 key cities did not reach air quality standards. A recent study in The Lancet suggests that in 2010 alone, air pollution in China caused some 1.2 million premature deaths.

China recently surpassed the United States to become the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) by volume, accounting for 29 percent of global CO2 emissions in 2012. In the same year, China's average CO2 emissions per person increased by 9 percent, to 7.2 tons; this puts China's per capita emissions roughly on a level with the European Union's, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

For most people in China, such dire assessments will come as little surprise: the visible effects of pollution are everywhere. In early 2012, heavy smog blanketed more than 1 million square kilometers of China for several days. More recently, in October 2013, record-setting levels of smog effectively shut down the major northeastern city of Harbin. According to a Pew Research Center survey, Chinese citizens' concerns about the environment rose sharply in 2013: 47 percent considered air pollution a “very big problem,” up from 36 percent in 2012.

Chinese government officials have stated that pollution now may be the country's single greatest cause of social unrest. Chen Jiping, formerly of the Chinese Communist Party's Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs, claimed in 2013 that the country sees an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 “mass incidents,” or protests, every year. Of these, Chen said, the “major reason… is the environment, and everyone cares about it now.” Other studies indicate that the frequency of environmentally related social incidents has been increasing by 30 percent every year. As Chen put it, “If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm?”

In July 2013, local authorities in southern China's Guangdong province bowed to this rising discontent when they cancelled the construction of a $6 billion uranium processing plant after hundreds of protesters took to the streets, having organized the demonstrations through social media and online messaging services. The city government continued to defend the project until the last moment, finally issuing on its website a simple oneline statement: “To respect people's desire, the Heshan government will not propose the project.”

The protests, and the local government's last-minute turnaround, are phenomena that increasingly worry senior government officials. Over the past several years, a succession of so-called not-in-my-backyard protests have opposed large industrial facilities and infrastructure around the country. The first such major uprising, in 2007, focused on the proposed construction of a petrochemical plant that was manufacturing paraxylene, or PX, in Xiamen in southeastern China.

Since then, waves of social unrest have halted many more projects: a second PX plant in Dalian in northeastern China; a copper and molybdenum refinery in Shifang, in the west; and incinerators in Panyu (Guangzhou province) and Xierqi (Beijing)—to name only a few. The specter of urban discontent, amplified by the growth of new media and mobile computing, looms large for China's decision makers—as does the potential for such opposition to derail economic development plans and trigger even greater social unrest if economic growth were to falter.

China now has 591 million Internet users and more than 460 million mobile Internet users, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. Sina Weibo, the country's largest micro-blogging service, has more than 500 million registered users. More than ever before in the history of the People's Republic, news and opinions can be shared among the public with ease—and the environment has become a key issue of concern. In effect, new media have given voice to a generation of citizens, many of whom are becoming economically enfranchised but are frustrated by their lack of a meaningful political stake in planning and other decisions that will affect their and their children's health.

Tang Hao, an academic at South China Normal University, summarized the situation in a typically insightful fashion, noting that in China,“pleasant living environments are getting harder to find—and scarcity leads to competition and conflict.” But, since the country has no mechanisms in place for managing such competition, “the outcome is unruly conflict,” Tang wrote.

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