Chinese people have become increasingly aware of the environment’s importance and stepped up their environmental protection efforts in recent years, as were displayed by protests against environment-concerned projects and conservation of endangered wildlife, among other things.
A report, China Going Green: A Civil Society Review of 20 Years of Sustainable Development, published in June 2012, says the lack of governmental organizations has prompted an increase in grassroots movements to protect the environment.
The trend of rising public environmental awareness may be encouraging but public engagement in environmental protection in China is still in its nascent stage and beset with problems.
First, the limited environmental information flowing out of local governments and companies deprives citizens of proper knowledge about their surroundings and thus prevents them from taking part in policymaking for and supervision of the environment. No wonder, some people have little confidence in the information released by local governments.
But that is not to say that China’s higher authorities have not taken steps to protect and improve the environment. China has already announced its comprehensive air pollution reduction plan and made serious efforts to improve the environmental regulation system, including the air quality monitoring and reporting system.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection, on its part, has issued a directory of polluting and non-polluting products and human behaviors. But much more needs to be done by the government to win the confidence of society in matters environmental.
Second, many public litigations against environmental damage and appeals for environmental protection are held up for lack of judicial support. According to official data, more than 300,000 environmental complaints were lodged across the country during the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) through “letters and visits” channels opened by various Party and government departments; in comparison, only about 1,000 environment-involved cases went through administrative reviews and court proceedings. And the local environmental courts have put much fewer public litigation cases on trial.
Third, rural and low-income people find it difficult to defend their rights in environmental disputes because of lack of means. A Bloomberg Businessweek report says the difference in per capita income between China’s coastal and inland areas in 2010 was nearly threefold, and according the 2009 World Bank figures, 173 million people were still surviving on less than $1.25 in the Chinese mainland.
As a result, in prosperous cities, the burgeoning middle class seeks cleaner air and water, safer food and a more transparent and accountable government, but in rural areas, many people are still burdened with both poverty and environmental degradation. Some of them may be bold enough to seek material compensation from the authorities, but most of them have no choice but to abide by the local conditions.
In cities, most people can express their views and talk about environmental problems through micro blogs or other social networks. But many people living in the countryside do not have access to social networks, are not aware of the environmental dangers around them and do not know how to lodge complaints.
The recent Party congress made environmental and ecological protection one of its top priorities, marking a historic shift toward environmentally friendly development. So while efforts to reverse the environmental damage are afoot in China, the government has to take meaningful measures and invite people to participate in programs to meet the Party’s green goals.
Public participation requires scientific support. People in less-developed areas don’t have enough scientific backup or experts to guide their actions. Hence, the government needs to set up institutional mechanisms and platforms to disseminate environmental information and enable these citizens to take part in building and maintaining greener communities.
Besides, governments at all levels have to be transparent with the content and scope of environmental information and act on the feedbacks from society to engage the public in environmental protection programs, because only through full public participation can China become a truly green and beautiful place to live in.