Pollution and Publicity: An Embarrassing Protest Forces the Chinese Government into Action

By Monica Patel

Pollution is one of the most serious challenges facing China today.  In addition creating to environmental and health problems, pollution has also become an important political issue. Chinese citizens, many of whom suffer from pollution-related health problems, increasingly realize that the country is in desperate need of a change in the way the environment is treated and managed.  The Chinese government, however, is not making a large enough effort to satisfy the citizens’ demands.  Authorities typically prioritize economic growth over everything else, and when they do enact environmental policies, they are rarely enforced.  As pollution increases, people want someone to be held accountable.

A recent three-day protest against the expansion of a petrochemical plant in Ningbo demonstrates just how fed up the Chinese citizenry is.  The government, aware of the harm the plant would pose to the surrounding towns, readily supported the state-owned refinery’s plans for expansion.  Decisions such as this one have made the Chinese citizens more willing “to take to the streets despite the perils of openly challenging the country’s authoritarian government,” while the government has focused on “keeping a lid on public discontent.”  The Chinese government insists on trying to quell these types of displays, as they reveal the government’s inadequacy with regard to the environment.  Its attempts at censorship have been undercut by the prevalence of social media and networking, which allow for increased publicity, sharing of opinions, and, in this instance, criticism.  All this unwanted attention has pressured the Chinese government into promising to stop the expansion project.  As one critic of the plant puts it, “the announcement is just a way to ease tensions,” but the public is beginning to see through these half-hearted governmental efforts that do not lead to substantive change.

Pollution in China is directly affecting the health of its citizens and yet government regulation and enforcement remains weak.  As Jonathan Watts alleges in his book, When a Billion Chinese Jump, the decentralized structure of China’s government is one of the biggest reasons for the lack of regulation.  Laws are passed by the central government, but provincial and local governments are tasked with enforcement.  The personal goals of local government officials often determine whether or not laws will be enforced; economic profit often offsets the enforcement of the law.  This means that government action on paper is not necessarily translated into real regulation and action.

In efforts to maintain the Chinese image, government officials have pushed citizens to the edge.  In Ningbo, the educated middle class has broken from its typically quiet position and has asserted that it will no longer be abused by industrial pollution.  They are simply done tolerating the inattentiveness of the government, and the government has not done enough to keep the peace.  This environmental movement in China is picking up momentum and the government will need to rethink its priorities if it wishes to avoid widespread public discontent.

The best way to pressure the government into action is to publicize facts about dangers of pollution and the opinions of the Chinese people.  As the Ningbo protest demonstrates, the Chinese government will do what it must to quiet public opposition and preserve its reputation.  Even if the government is embarrassed into action and environmental reform, the citizens will benefit from less pollution and more enforcement of industrial regulations.

Monica Patel is a first-year student from San Francisco looking at
majoring in economics.

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