2013. Vol.2, No.4, 178-184
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/chnstd) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/chnstd.2013.24029
The Weak Link: Diagnosing Political and Social Factors in
China’s Environmental Issue
Institutional Research and Assessment, Washington DC, USA
Email: Li@cua.edu, email@example.com
Received August 17th, 20 13; revised September 18th, 2013; accepted September 28th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Xiaofan Li. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribu-
tion License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
China’s thriving economy takes a toll on its environmental sustainability, and recent decades have wit-
nessed an irreversible degradation in China’s environmental conditions. Meanwhile, the environmental
issue in China is embedded in a large and complex political and social context that has been undergoing
continual and far-reaching transformations. With an attempt to diagnose the weak link and to shed light
on solutions for China’s environmental issue, this article explores and analyzes an array of political and
social factors: changes in China’s environmental policies and political orientations, conflicts between
economic growth and environmental protection, political decentralization and its impact on the environ-
mental issue, and China’s civil society’s role in public awareness and support for environmental protec-
Keywords: China; Environmental Protection; Politics; Decentralization; Policies; Civil Society
China has increasingly become a global economic power-
house. However, its economic boom is gained at the cost of
sacrificing extensive environmental sustainability, and recent
decades have witnessed a tremendously intractable degradation
in natural and ecological environment in China.
Environmental problems are prevalent throughout most of
China: deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, loss of arable
land, air pollution, and water contamination (Banister, 1998;
Boxer, 1989; Lo & Fryxell, 2003; Wan, 1997). According to a
report by the State Environmental Protection Administration
(SEPA) 国家环境保护总局, 3% of China’s GDP in 2004 was
lost due to environmental destruction (State Environmental
Protection Administration, 2004). The situations have worsened
and the ecological footprints of China’s population have been
substantially deepened during the reform years, as numerous
industrial and economic activities have been undertaken with
little or no concern about environmental quality.
However, the environmental issue in China is embedded in a
large and complex political and social context that has been
undergoing continual and far-reaching transformations in terms
of political agenda and social values. These changes are “so
profound, so rapid and contradictory, that the state, through its
environmental policy, has had difficulty in identifying the root
structural causes of its environmental problems, let alone miti-
gating them” (Muldavin, 2000: p. 245). Meanwhile, politics in
China tends to give priority to economic development and poli-
cies of environmental protection are often ambiguous and ir-
resolute. Various institutional factors hinder a nationwide coor-
dination and endeavor. Lo & Fryxell (2003: p. 82) attributed this
to “China’s fragmented bureaucracy, political obstruction of the
more powerful ministries, and a shortage of resources”. More-
over, subject to political coercion, China’s underdeveloped civil
society adds more obstacles to the cause of environmental pro-
tection by blocking free avenues of public advocacy, civic en-
gagement, and development of non-governmental organizations
(NGOs). This paper attempts to shed light on solutions for
China’s environmental issue by exploring and analyzing an
array of political social factors. First, it examines the changes in
China’s environmental policies and political orientations; sec-
ond, it discusses the conflicts between economic growth and
environmental protection, political decentralization and its im-
pact on the environmental issue; third, it explores the civil soci-
ety in China and its role in public awareness and support for the
cause of environmental protection.
Environmental Protection Policies in China
Policymaking in the environmental issue in China has been
characterized as an oscillating commitment by the state gov-
ernment, mainly due to its concentration on propelling eco-
nomic growth, with many other issues in the society often being
eclipsed by this orientation.
About a decade after the Communist Party took over the re-
gime, China’s first milestone environmental policy was insti-
tuted in the 1950s, comprehensively aiming to address the is-
sues of flooding control, hydropower construction, river chan-
nels, and rural and urban water supply (Boxer, 1989; Ross,
1998). During the subsequent two decades, the tumultuous
“Cultural Revolution” impeded substantial commission in en-
vironmental protection. In the mid-1970s when the turmoil was
dying down, concerns over the environmental conditions began
to resurface and a series of decrees were enacted to safeguard
the environment and mitigate damage. Half of them comprised
X. F. LI
concrete plans of environmental remediation, and the rest were
pertinent to procedures and responsibilities of government ad-
ministration and enforcement (Palmer, 1998).
By the 1980s, environmental protection agencies at the na-
tional, provincial, and local levels had stepped up their coordi-
nating efforts in combating environmental peril in China. More
importantly, the state government began to emphasize the no-
tion of “sustainable development”, a political propaganda land-
mark in which “development” was re-defined as “meeting the
needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland, 1987: p. 91).
Since 1990, funds dedicated to environmental protection in
China have been augmented, underscoring its commitment to
this issue. The expenditures for treating waste water and solid
dregs rose from 4.5 billion yuan (approximately US$64 million)
to 9.9 billion yuan (US$17 million) within 5 years (China Daily
中国日报, 2005). Between 2001 and 2005, as part of the state’s
panoramic Ninth Five-Year Plan, nearly one percent of the
GDP was appropriated to tackle the environmental problems.
This was almost twice as much as the total spending on envi-
ronmental protection in the preceding three consecutive Five-
Year Plans (1986-2000) combined. Collateral consequences
were achieved in two aspects: one was a heightened public
awareness of environmental protection, and the other was a
more developed official channel of mobilizing funding and
resources for environmental protection programs (Jahiel, 1997).
In theory, China’s environmental policies are seemingly im-
portant and meaningful, and it should be able to ameliorate the
deteriorating environment if these policies were effectively
carried out (Banister, 1998; Schwartz, 2004). Schwartz (2004)
put forth three preconditions that successful jurisdiction should
satisfy: first, consent from central leadership; second, priority
given by the top leaders; and third, compliance by the local
leaders (Schwartz, 2004: p. 29). However, the emphasis on eco-
nomic advancement makes it difficult for environmental poli-
cies to be completely and effectively implemented. On the other
hand, policies in this field tend to be very acquiescent and
non-confrontational (Lo et al., 2000). Thus violators survive
and thrive with little solid and effective intervention from either
government institutions or environmental agencies. For in-
stance, countless township and village enterprises laden with
pollution have mostly been able to minimize sanctions by the
environmental institutions, because these low-tech, labor inten-
sive factories absorb large labor surplus with low education
level and minimal technical skills, and contribute one-third of
the annual GDP of the country (Tilt, 2010). Closing them down
would conceivably lead to vast layoffs and social unrest. In
addition, many foreign-invested companies ostracized by their
home countries because of their environmental infractions have
found a foothold to operate in China. In 2007, the computer
manufacturer, Hewlett Packard (HP), promised to cease the
production of computers containing harmful chemicals, primar-
ily BRF and PVC, in Chinese market by 2009. However, HP
covertly revised this deadline to “2011” on their website with-
out any formal announcements to the public in 2009, nor did
they have any specific ti meline of the former decision. Rega rd-
less of the disapproval and complaints from the public, HP has
continued its production and sale of this kind of computers in
China since then (China Daily中国日报, 2011).
Internationally, China’s stance toward cross-national colla-
boration on the environmental issue has been inconsistent and
even evasive. China was the first country in the world to ratify
the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
(UNFCCC) in 1992 (Wan, 1998). Nonetheless, China in fact
has not actively fulfilled the promises that it made in global
negotiations, and it has begun to retrograde in recent years. In
2004 China withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, a key part of
UNFCCC aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through
international cooperation (Jeon & Yoon, 2006). Breaking away
from the binding duties that Kyoto mechanism imposed on
nations, China attempted to seek a coalition with other devel-
oping countries as leverage resisting foreign pressures. The
major reason is that China is still reluctant to sacrifice its eco-
nomic development for the costly accountabilities of preserving
environmental health (Wan, 1998). To some degree, the com-
mitment that it has made in environmental protection is in-
tended to subdue international and domestic criticism, reinforce
its authoritarian reign, and enhance its powerhouse standing in
China’s Political Economy and
Although many policymakers and researchers believe that
environmentalism and economy are not in a zero-sum relation-
ship (Schofer, 2006), China’s political protocol with an inten-
sive concentration on economic development in the reform
years gives rise to large-scale irresponsible business activities
that enormously heighten the level of consumption and exploi-
tation of natural resources. In addition, as an offshoot of
China’s makeover in its political climate since 1979, decen-
tralization in bureaucracy and jurisdiction makes it difficult to
generalize the overall status quo of the environmental issue.
Discrete and imbalanced distribution of political power at the
local level greatly erodes the national mandates and also dic-
tates the enforcement of the environmental policies.
Conflicts between Economic Growth and
Environmental protection and its policies are often portrayed
as a conflict to economic growth, because stringent regulations
would constrain the scope of the industrial development, re-
quire more “green” apparatus, and cost substantial resources to
process wastes and pollutants. Although some researchers con-
tended this idea by pointing out that those pro-environmental
countries can get more benefits in terms of economic growth,
unfortunately, China is intentionally excluded in a cross-na-
tional statistical analysis (Schofer, 2006: p. 975) due to this
country’s unique and complex political and social characteris-
The unprecedented agricultural-to-industrial and rural-to-
urban advancement (Ali et al., 2008; Sims, 1999) has boosted
China’s economy in a fast track, but the central government’s
concern with the environmental issue was slackened and re-
mained irresolute in years. Under the guidelines of concentrat-
ing on economic development, industrialization is universally
considered by government officials as the only path leading to
modernization, a notion so called “first pollution and then
remediation”, which suggests an obsession with the economic
development while overlooking other important social aspects,
as well as the unintended aftermath that it will potentially bring
about. As a consequence, China’s economic growth is featured
by high levels of capital investment, resource consumption, and
pollutant discharge, a mode that has already been dismissed by
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X. F. LI
most developed countries (Wu, 2011).
In China, conflicts between economic development and the
environmental issue are often resolved in favor of the former
(Boxer, 1989). In most areas, a lot of environmental protection
endeavor is more likely succumb to economic development at a
local level. Guo (2007: p. 379) observes that local economic
situations play a key role in determining career advancement of
local officials, and “provincial leaders with worse economic
growth or fiscal contribution are more likely to be demoted or
retired”. As a result, the majority of the local institutions and
government bureaucrats are more galvanized to boost economic
growth than concerned about pollution control (Bo, 2002; Li &
Zhou, 2005; Tang et al., 1997). From their perspectives, mar-
ketization or infrastructure construction can render more direct
and pronounced fiscal return, which further strengthens the
legitimacy of the political support for economic development
As the economy progressed rapidly, economic prosperity has
taken a toll on the natural environment. China’s overheated
economy imposes greater demands on energy and resource
consumption than ever before, which irreversibly aggravates its
environmental woes. While China already has been the world’s
largest consumer of coal, it also has become the second largest
consumer of crude oil and electricity. The controversial project
of the Three Gorges Dam has provoked considerable opposition
by both domestic and global environmental protection groups.
Once completed, the reservoir will stretch over 350 miles up-
stream and the 26 turbines of the dam are able to pump out
18,200 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to almost 10 large
coal-fired power stations in a single year (Cable News Network,
1997). Critics argued that the facility will be expected to jeop-
ardize the health of massive local species and humans habitats,
which will outweigh the benefits that the project is designed to
produce (CNN, 1997; Jing, 2000). In addition to the deteriorat-
ing natural environment, both the metropolitan and secondary
cities in China have suffered detrimental pollution, caused by
rash urbanization and imbalance population concentration.
According to a report by the World Bank (2007), 20 of the 30
cities with the most polluted air condition are in China. Since
1978, driven by the lure of a better fortune and education sys-
tem in the urban areas, coupled with dismantled rigid residen-
tial boundaries, a sizeable influx of migrants from the country-
side into the cities manifests an incredibly long-lasting upward
of social mobility in contemporary China. The continuously
escalating number of urban households and the rising living
standards entail massive demands on water, electricity, heating,
air conditioning, and transportation, which inflicts tremendous
pressure on the inner-city environment in China.
Changes in Political Ideology in China
Since the collapse of t he Soviet Union, China remains one of
the few nations oriented by Marxism-Leninism. After it em-
barked on the economic reform in the late 1970s, immense
changes have taken place in almost every domain of the Chi-
nese society. It also triggers a campaign of new cognition on
political ideology. On one hand, this reform that emphasizes the
development of economy, science and technology does not defy
much of the long held theories of Marxism; on the other hand,
China has instilled new implications into this doctrine through
its own distinctive way.
The reform that started in 1978 was so profound in China
that this grand transformation not only reshuffled the entire
economic structure, but also resulted in new social stratifica-
tions and norms. Although the economic reform undermined
the prior political ideology that bolstered the perception of
“proletariats revolution” (White, 1995), the post-Mao regime
still echoes one of the Marxism claims, that is, labor and eco-
nomic activities have served as the fundamental dynamism
underlying the vicissitude of human societies (Hughes, 1995).
The late Chinese top leader Deng Xiaoping not only inherited
this doctrine, but also promoted a flexible and pragmatic ap-
proach to interpret and act upon most of Marxist principles. In
fact, Deng also recognized that despite Marx’s relentless con-
demnation of capitalism, Marx obviously appreciated the ad-
vances that the industrial revolution and technical changes in
capitalist society had generated. One of Deng’s most audacious
perceptions that largely refuted leftist leadership and cult of
persona was the concept of collective leadership (Soled, 1995).
Moreover, a conspicuous differentiation between Mao and
Deng lies in their perspectives on social values. While Mao
stressed self-sacrifice, collectivism, egalitarianism, and obedi-
ence to the Communist Party and society, Deng encouraged
materialistic incentives, self-interest, and pragmatism (Soled,
The failed Tian’an Men Square democratic movement ush-
ered in a few years of stagnancy in China’s economy, but soon
after Deng made a historic announcement about the nation’s
reaffirmed stewardship and new orientation of development in
1992, China’s economy rebounded. By joining the World Trade
Organization (WTO) in 2001 which allowed China to fully
embrace globalization, China experienced an immense takeoff
in its economy and national power. More incredibly, this surge
sustained for more than 10 years. Many scholars pointed out
that China is well-positioned to keep this up for two more dec-
ades (Oi, 2005; Shirk, 2010). In fact, according to the United
Nations, in 2010 China already overtook Japan and Germany
and has become the second largest economy in the world.
Meanwhile, learning the lesson from the Tian’an Men trauma,
Chinese political leaders reinforced the regime by a fixation on
the economic development, while maintaining cohesion of the
central leadership and social stability.
Political Decentralization and Its Impact on the
Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China’s
political ideology depends on a hierarchical structure domi-
nated by a number of conservative bureaucrats (Shirk, 2010).
This led to legislation occurring in a close-knit bureaucratic
entity with institutional inertia. At the national level, environ-
mental policies must go through authorization processes of
numerous bodies: the Politburo, the State Planning Commission,
the Environmental Committee of the National People’s Con-
gress, the National Environmental Protection Administration
(NEPA), which was renamed and reorganized as the State En-
vironmental Protection Administration (SEPA) in 1998, and
various other ministries (Jeon & Yoon, 2006; Ross, 1988; Tilt,
2010). Among these, only the SEPA has a liaison relation with
other relevant political departments (Jeon & Yoon, 2006; Guo,
2007). For instance, SEPA collaborates with the National Sta-
tistics Bureau to compile and release an annual report that
comprehensively covers a wide range of issues concerning
environmental preservation. Nevertheless, SEPA does not have
X. F. LI
an authoritatively weighty position in the case of interest con-
flicts with other political organs (Sinkule & Ortolano, 1995;
Jeon & Yoon, 2006), which obstructs collective contributions
to the policymaking and jurisdiction processes.
At the local level, most municipal environmental institutions
now possess an equal footing as other bureaucratic departments
(Ma & Ortolano, 2000; Smil, 1993), and this allows them to
secure more funds and fortify the connections with other gov-
ernment units. However, they are somewhat defective in two
important aspects: insufficient authority and lack of coordina-
tion among these institutions. Since they are subject to financial
and personnel provision and supervision by the local govern-
ments, the power of decision making is still largely wielded by
the local governments, instead of the agencies. Meanwhile,
political decentralization and geographic heterogeneity create a
lot of barriers for local environmental agencies to make joint
efforts (Jahiel, 1997).
In spite of a non-democratic, single-party system, China’s
political setting is not a top-down monolithic one. As a result of
the economic reform, decentralization has given considerable
autonomy and flexibility to local governments and private sec-
tors in many spheres. In the early 1980s, the state government’s
annual expenditures accounted for half of the total, but it has
been reduced to between 27% and 34% since 1988, which
means 70% has been channeled to four local levels: province,
city, county/city district, and town/village (Guo, 2007). In addi-
tion, China’s vast territory and cultural heterogeneity contribute
to discrepancies between national and regional bureaucracy
features as well as divergent entrenched inter-regional interests
that engage municipal leaders, economic and industrial bureaus,
government agencies, and the environmental protection or-
ganizations (Lo & Fryxell, 2003). As the administrative re-
forms and institutionalization continues, China’s central lead-
ership became less pivotal or decisive in power and resource
allocation at the local level (Li & Bachman, 1989; Guo, 2007).
Therefore, there is a disparity between political rhetoric and
implementation of the policies, especially in the countryside
and rural areas, where the practice of environmental edicts is
often overlooked and circumvented. This leads to most of the
environmental issues being addressed at a state level. In Janu-
ary 2011, SEPA launched an initiative targeting four prominent
electric corporations nationwide, which includes shutting down
certain production programs, investigating solutions for indus-
trial pollution, and halting new construction projects (China
Daily 中国日报, January 10, 2011). In fact, throughout the
country there are millions of these companies that have been
endorsed or connived by the local governments and/or regional
environmental institutions, but only the state agencies have the
potential capability to confront them with tangible measures.
Meanwhile, continuous decentralization has greatly empow-
ered local authorities whose self-interest is directly linked with
the regional economic performance. And very often local lead-
ers find their interest in clashes with the national as well as
other local interest. This divergence hampers jurisdiction of the
central environmental agencies and the enforcement of the en-
vironmental policies. A report compiled by SEPA in 2005 was
aborted by virtue of the debate about publishing the rankings of
provincial “green GDP”, a new practice to gauge economic
performance while taking the environmental cost into account
(China Daily中国日报, May 12, 2005). The same thing hap-
pened in the ensuing years. This incident indicates that the ef-
ficacy of the central environmental agencies is substantially
susceptible to divergent sub-national interests. In light of these
constraints, although SEPA has the authority to formulate and
command policy directives, it is not a powerhouse to control or
oversee the implementation of the policies at the local level (Lo
& Fryxell, 2003; Schwartz, 2004).
Another important actor in play is guanxi, which literally
means the network of interpersonal relationships emphasizing
mutual trust and reciprocal favor (Bian, 1994). Not only do they
facilitate the exchange of gratifications amid private interac-
tions, these networks of relationships are also significant cus-
tomary manners of handling political and economic interactions
in China, due to the comparatively weaker institutional imple-
mentations (Li, 2007). It is so ubiquitous and influential
throughout China’s political mechanism and cultural values that
the execution of the environmental policies is seriously cir-
cumscribed by guanxi (Lo & Fryxell, 2003).
As one of the unintended consequences of political decen-
tralization, local protectionism, actually a type of guanxi be-
tween local governments and businesses, severely thwarts im-
plementation of the environmental policies. As the representa-
tives of regional interests, local government officials often have
complicated connections with business leaders of local enter-
prises aligned by unwarranted mutual benefits. On one hand,
local governments depend on industries and companies to levy
tax as revenue. On the other hand, a lot of business leaders
make in-roads in local authorities in order to obtain special
treatment or favor that facilitates their operations. Some even
attempt to cover up their infringements by falsifying documents
and bribing government officials. Through these gratuitous
agreements, some local governments not only acquit or protect
violations of environmental standards, but also espouse new
investment projects that have been explicitly outlawed by the
state environmental edicts. This conspiracy between money and
power underpins local protectionism, which is often immune
from state interposition.
Take the construction of hydroelectric dams for example.
There are approximately 45,000 mega-sized dams in the world
and 45% of them are in China. The total number of medium-
and small-sized dams in China even exceeds half a million,
which are scattered in almost all major rivers and waterways
(Wu, 2010). In most cases, the builders, dam owners, and local
governments are beneficiaries in the projects. Some scientists
point out that some of these establishments are absolutely re-
dundant; more importantly, many are located in the heart of
national environmental protection districts, national ecological
preservation zones, and national scenery parks (Wu, 2010).
With sloppy oversight by the local officials, reckless planning
by the builders, and poor management by the owners, the im-
pact that these facilities exert on the environment will be ex-
Some large companies use investment benefits as bait and
switch to coerce local governments for the purpose of condon-
ing their transgressions. APP Corporation financed 80% of the
industrial projects in the Hainan province and also purchased
330,000 acres of natural forest from the provincial government
(Wu, 2010). Not only has its paper manufacture seriously
damaged the forest by extensive logging, but also through the
multi-million contracts signed with the government, the com-
pany has such a direct and forceful influence on myriad local
government departments and environmental protection agencies
that they can mostly evade litigation for many years. Legal
actions toward APP Corporation just began to take place in
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X. F. LI
The challenging application of the new “green GDP” initia-
tive also indicates that local protectionism is one of the road
blocks to the enforcement of environmental measures. Intended
as an indispensable standard in assessing provincial leaders’
political performance, the practice of “green GDP” is actually
sidelined in most areas, and none of the leaders was penalized
or demoted on account of the environmental issue.
China’s Civil Society and Public Awareness of
the Environmental Issue
Although social media, researchers, and environmental
NGOs who share a common concern toward the issue of envi-
ronmental protection were able to have an impact in the agenda
set up for mass cooperation at both domestic and international
levels (Jeon & Yoon, 2006), this progress is still explicitly hin-
dered by the more powerful political bulwark.
China’s Environmental Civil Society
Civil society, the existence of autonomous, non-governmental
organizations polishing the rough edges of our society, expands
the sphere of people’s freedom and autonomy in their social life.
The dichotomy between civil society and government indicates
that civil society is an ideally structured domain devoid of
state’s control and arbitration.
A much more mature and effective environmental protection
mechanism in many developed and democratic countries can be
attributed to their relatively robust public support and a more
advanced civil society.
Although globalization and information technology introduce
a large volume of international ideas to the Chinese and many
of them are conscious of a burgeoning civil society in China
and even strive to promote it, its growth is far from strong
enough to trigger political revolution against the ruling party.
Despite the attempts that Chinese leadership at both the na-
tional and sub-national levels has been making to streamline
bureaucratic administration through reforms (Forster, 2006),
political guidelines are still largely inclined to quash public
grievances on miscellaneous social problems. In addition, by
shifting public attention to economic prosperity in tandem with
police coercion and even occasional use of military crackdown
(MacKinnon, 2008), the Chinese Communist Party has suc-
cessfully dampened the development of civic society in China.
In such an authoritarian regime, publicly organized demonstra-
tions and protests against environmental pollution are greatly
inhibited, civic discourse and complaints about the environ-
mental issue are discouraged, and reports of cases of environ-
mental infractions via media are mostly censored.
Recent research found a new direction of public counterac-
tion toward environmental crisis (Jing, 2000; O’Brien & Li,
2006; Tilt, 2010). By mobilizing citizens’ support and employ-
ing lenient rhetoric to exert influence on government, this kind
of “peaceful” resistance exists and operates at the periphery of
the formal political oversight. Organized protests against envi-
ronmental damage have been on the rise and government be-
came more tolerant of this kind of confrontation, provided that
it is restricted on a local level and small in scale (Oi, 2001; Tilt,
2010). One most significant and inspiring victory accomplished
by civic movements took place in 2006 in Xiamen, one of the
Special Economic Development Zones located in southeastern
China. Xiamen is reputed for its scenery coastal lines and good
environmental quality throughout the years. Thanks for the
massive opposition by the Xiamen citizens of all social levels, a
large-scale petrochemical factory to be invested and operated
by Taiwanese was forced to alter its original blueprint and
eventually was established in another area (Pan, 2006).
In spite of these encouraging progresses, the existence of
criticism about the status quo is mainly sporadic and confined
in a “safety zone”, where the voice of the grass-roots remains
flimsy and compartmentalized (Schofer, 2008). Civic engage-
ment and public support for environmental protection invaria-
bly find it difficult to penetrate into China’s political system as
an institutional factor shaping legislation and administration.
The legal framework for public participation in China, albeit
progressive in the long run, is ill-defined and inconsistently
Environmental NGOs in China
Independent non-official environmental organizations have
emerged since the 1990s. Focusing on education and volunteer-
ism, they disseminate information regarding environmental
sustainability and organize promotion activities, such as tree
planting and public forum. Friends of Nature is the largest
among these groups with 350 members since it was founded in
1994 (Knup, 1997). The globally prominent environmental
NGO, Green Peace, has environmental programs in more than
40 countries with 2.5 million voluntary members worldwide. Its
first Chinese branch was established in Beijing in 2002. Its
missions in China range from initiating a wide range of pro-
grams arousing public awareness to enlisting volunteers, from
providing businesses with environmental counseling to report-
ing cases that violate environmental regulations. At the same
time, college student groups promoting environmentalism have
made an appearance on campus. By 1997, there were over 20
such student organizations in Beijing and at least 10 in other
parts of the nation (Jahiel, 1997).
There were over 2000 registered environmental NGOs in
China by 2000 and many of them are best described as “gov-
ernmental non-governmental organizations” (Schwartz, 2004: p.
36). These are not the real NGOs in a strict sense, because they
are mostly established and funded by government agencies. In
this case, these government-sponsored NGOs should take on
the responsibilities of educating government officials at various
levels and broadening their scope of knowledge of the envi-
Regardless of how promising these organizations may appear,
NGOs are commonly not strong enough to influence policy-
making and most NGOs are faced with mounting constraints,
such as insufficient funding and staffing, lack of public support,
limited resources, antagonism from the industries, and restric-
tions and surveillance imposed by the state and/or local gov-
Public Awareness of the Environmental Issue
Generally speaking, public awareness of environmental pro-
tection in China lags far behind those developed countries. The
majority of individuals are less aware of the need to preserve
environment and some rural people even never heard of the
term “environmental protection” (Tilt, 2010). Some research
studies found out that the majority of China’s expanding elite
and middle class are very content with their privileged social
status and are unwilling to sabotage their financial gains in
X. F. LI
exchange of a subversion of the existing political system (Tang,
This ignorance and nonchalance stem from people’s anxiety
predominantly about the economic realities. A large proportion
of the rural population is still struggling under the poverty line
and having to meet their basic life needs is placed as the prior-
ity. In addition, spurred by the goals of achieving economic
success and enhancing social standing, especially during the
past five years when housing prices in the major cities have
been skyrocketing, most urbanites are literally pushed to strive
laboriously for a better affordab ility to become homeowners.
That explained why the United Nations Climate Change
Conference, widely known as Copenhagen Summit, was given
so little coverage in most of the local media, while many Chi-
nese TV talk shows and online forums are more likely to dis-
cuss the issues like motor vehicle purchase, housing prices,
education, and unemployment. In the perceptions of most citi-
zens, environmental protection is more of a political issue that
should be left for the government to deal with, and the daily
efforts of preserving energy and reducing carbon footprints are
considered luxury afforded only by the urban elites. This
widely held mindset exacerbates the marginal public support
for environmental protection.
Overall, the environmental issue in China is entangled with
multifaceted national and local political and social characteris-
tics of complex nature. China’s political agendas for environ-
mental protection are often very ambiguous with little consid-
eration in geographic heterogeneity and social stratifications
(Muldavin, 2000; Oakes, 1996).
Realization of the severe cost on environment caused by the
rapid economic growth should be a key step to redress the eco-
nomic-oriented political strategies and authoritative steward-
ship in this matter. If the economic interests of industries and
government in China continue to take precedence over the en-
vironmental issue, it will be an ongoing battle between eco-
nomic growth and public values. Given the subordinate position
of the environmental agencies, legislation and enforcement of
the environmental policies should be hinged upon the authority
of the state and local governments. Meanwhile, by adopting
“green GDP” (Ali et al., 2008), industrial leaders should em-
ploy energy-efficient production mechanism and amend the
ways in which economic activities proceed, such as manufac-
turing, resource distribution, and mass consumption (Ali et al.,
2008; Muldavin, 2000; Sinkule & Ortolano, 2000).
With relatively weak environmental agencies, underdevel-
oped NGOs, and disorganized and feeble public support in
China, political climate and stewardship of the state govern-
ment became exceptionally decisive in the environmental issue.
Chinese contemporary history proves that government-driven
public movements could be an effective way of developing
environmental civil society in China. Therefore, government
accountability should be emphasized and fortified to facilitate
civil campaigns of preserving environment (Pan, 2006).
Admittedly, similar to most developing countries, China is
challenged by a host of disadvantages and constraints. Given
the country’s low per capita income, there is a shortage of re-
sources at government’s disposal, and many other realms, such
as infrastructure construction and social welfare reform, are in
much greater need of imperative investment and attention. All
these marginalize the endeavor on saving China’s environment.
With China’s increasingly prominent status in the international
arena, finding a balance between economic growth and envi-
ronmental protection not only has far-reaching implications for
China, but also serves as a potential model or paradigm for
other developing countries.
The China’s environmental issue is a long-term, arduous un-
dertaking that entails prudent and active promotion by govern-
ment leadership, adamant legislation and enforcement at both
the national and local levels, elevation of the authority of the
environmental agencies, industrial compliance with the envi-
ronmental standards and investment in new clean technologies,
and a mature civil society with influential and organized public
support. These are the fundamental building blocks that need to
be worked out in the cause of saving the environment in China.
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