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Grassroots Hopes for a Beautiful China

Still, there are some hopeful glimmers in the smog, including a flourishing of new initiatives by Chinese green NGOs, journalists, and networked citizens, sometimes in coordination with enterprising officials who have recognized the need for more open and responsive government approaches to sustainability.

An unusually smoggy few weeks in Beijing in late 2011 saw aircraft grounded and roads closed as thick haze obscured all but the lowest buildings. Networked citizens in northern Chinese cities became concerned about not only the polluted air, but also the secrecy around official reporting of air quality data. Every year since 1998, when public reporting of air quality began, the Beijing government had increased the number of annual “blue sky days.” This measure, based on the city's air pollution index, did not match people's visual perceptions of deteriorating air quality, or the accounts of online visual diarists, such as bloggers Lu Weiwei and Fan Tao, whose photographs attested to the worsening conditions.

Nor did the measurement take into account airborne concentrations of PM2.5, fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less that penetrates deep into the lungs. This data was being collected and shared hourly, not by the authorities, but, in a political plot twist, by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, on its Twitter account @BeijingAir. Journalists and researchers compared the datasets and began to challenge the government data, exposing a yawning gulf between official and unofficial narratives on the severity of the pollution. An online “storm” of citizen complaints on microblogs called for the release of real-time information about airborne concentrations of PM2.5. One online poll, started by property developer Pan Shiyi, saw tens of thousands of signatories call for the government to release more accurate measurements.

Innovative, citizen-science efforts sprang up as well. A project called

Smog in Harbin, December 2012.

FLOAT Beijing attached tiny Bluetooth-enabled pollution sensors onto kites, traditionally flown by hobbyists in the capital, making an arresting art piece that also created a dynamic, air pollution dataset, available for free online. The environmental NGO Green Beagle helped organize residents to use home testing kits and post their own air quality readings online. Encouragingly, the Beijing government heard these calls for greater transparency, and in January 2012, it began releasing PM2.5 data. This led to some 73 more cities releasing real-time air quality information. Even the state news agency Xinhua praised the “stirring campaign” from citizens and the “satisfying response” from policy makers.

These campaigns build on the efforts of pioneers like Ma Jun, a former investigative journalist for the South China Morning Post who founded the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in Beijing. IPE collects publicly available information to build maps of environmental data, including on air and water pollution as well as the levels of data transparency in different cities. These data are being used by citizens to locate the sources of pollution near them, by residents' groups to challenge the transparency of their local authorities, by businesses to better understand the environmental impacts of their supply chains, and by journalists to conduct investigations.

Many campaigns help to challenge the collusion between officials and polluters at the local level. In 2013, with characteristic humor, Chinese microbloggers began asking government officials to swim in their local polluted rivers. One businessman in eastern China offered his city's environment chief more than $30,000 to swim for 20 minutes in a local waterway—an offer that he illustrated with pictures of the foul river teeming with rubbish. The official declined.

One of China's best hopes is that it might harness these emerging forms of public participation and open information, particularly in the new media context, to help address its environmental woes. For several years, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection has operated a hotline for citizens to phone in tip-offs about pollution incidents and environmental infractions; however, awareness and uptake has been low. More recently, China's environment authorities have begun using microblog accounts at different levels, in many cases to engage in two-way communication and to listen to public opinion.

The Environmental Protection Bureau in Chongqing, a large municipality of some 29 million people in southwestern China, has a microblog account for each of its 40 districts. The blogs are not only used to speedily disseminate environmental information (such as on air quality), but also intended to create greater transparency and improved responsiveness to public opinion and citizen complaints.

Conclusion

Whether the issue is water pollution or climate change, China has ambitious environmental targets, laws, and regulations—and there is political will at the center. But in the absence of strong citizen oversight and public participation, supported by greater government transparency, implementation will continue to be thwarted by structural problems, including collusion between local officials and polluters.

China will need to navigate new forms of grassroots public engagement if it is to address such structural issues and to improve environmental governance during its complex and ambitious transition to a cleaner, low-carbon economy. It will also need to contend with multiple, proliferating uncertainties—not least social ones—which will require citizen perspectives to be taken into account if frequent conflict is to be avoided.

Navigating these waters will require a commitment to full and early public participation in environmental decision making, which has been hampered by inadequate implementation of existing government laws and regulations. In the coming years, China will need to embrace open channels, unfettered by censorship, for concerned citizens to protect themselves against the consequences of poor decisions—and to express their visions of an Ecological Civilization.

 
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