20 years of China’s public voice

Since the last Rio summit, China's way of doing things has changed: citizens have become players in environmental governance. Chang Cheng reflects on a civil-society journey.

This article is adapted from the report China Going Green: A Civil Society Review Of 20 Years Of Sustainable Development, produced by six Chinese NGOs ahead of the Rio+20 summit. Read more here.

In 1992, the United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil produced the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Its 10th principle opens with these words: “Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level.”

Internationally, this is known as the Access Principle, or the Public Participation Principle, and it sets out a framework for citizen engagement in environmental management. On the declaration’s 20th anniversary, as world leaders once again assemble in Rio de Janeiro, it’s worth taking a moment to look back at the past two decades of public participation in China.

After the first line, the Access Principle continues like this: “At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”

In the 20 years since this principle was formulated, China has seen the advent and growth of public participation in the sustainable development field, at both national and local level. The past few years have been as significant as any: new technologies have taken citizen engagement to new heights online, while government action has brought public participation into mainstream political thought.

More specifically, the stronger public voice in China has been propelled by three main forces. First among these has been the formation and development of independent NGOs, from early national pioneers like my organisation Friends of Nature (the first officially recognised NGO) to specialist outfits including the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs – led by open information campaigner Ma Jun – to local bodies such as Green Anhui, based in eastern China.

Influential cases in which NGOs have been involved include efforts to protect the Tibetan antelope, the campaign to save the Nu River and a public hearing on a controversial project to lay an impermeable membrane on the bed of the Old Summer Palace lake in Beijing.

High-profile campaigns in the late 1990s to protect the Tibetan antelope and the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey shared a pattern: though idealistic government or Party workers were crucial at the start, these campaigns were later powered by widespread public support – and taken more seriously as a result. But still, most environmental campaigns during this period were based around heroic individuals; environmental groups were not yet bringing their influence to bear.

The second driving force has been government innovation. Governance by rule of law is written into China’s constitution and, in 2004, guidelines on administration by rule of law were released which protected and affirmed the value of open information and public participation. This in turn triggered regulations on public participation in environmental impact assessments and legislation enshrining the right of the public to access environmental data, along with trial environmental courts in many places.

Thirdly, China has seen a growth in action and campaigning by members of the public outside of formal organisations. This is a more recent development than the growth of NGOs or government reforms. It emerged gradually after the country reached certain educational and economic levels, and has been propelled forward by the advent of modern information technology.

People directly affected by pollution or construction projects or a host of other local concerns have acted to protect their interests and, in so doing, worked to protect the interests of the wider public too. The “walking” protest against a PX chemical plant in Xiamen, south China, in 2007 is perhaps the most famous example. Tens of thousands of residents marched through the city’s streets to make their views heard, and eventually a decision was taken to relocate the planned factory at the centre of the controversy.

This was not a protest led by environmental campaign groups. Instead, the public organised themselves via internet forums and mobile phones. If we take the day in 1994 when Friends of Nature officially opened its doors as the moment China’s intellectuals started to wake up to environmental dangers, then “Xiamen PX” marked the dawning of a new savvy among the wider public; the realisation it must act to counter those same risks.

In western nations, organised environmental groups have been the leaders and mobilisers of public environmental action. But in China, these groups are often absent when the public is influencing policy decisions. China’s grassroots NGOs are held back by a complicated registration process and the sensitivity of their work, as well as limits on the way they can raise funds and mobilise the public. The groups are often unable – or do not dare – to launch public campaigns, and as such are disconnected from the very communities they should be working closely with.

But a new element is helping to mobilise those communities. The rise of social media in the last decade has given China’s citizens the tools with which to organise.

Public participation in environmental protection is expanding, from a small number of intellectuals recognising and acting on the problem, to society as a whole acting together. The air pollution controversies of the last year offer a particularly vivid example.

Continuous smog in Beijing in late October 2011 sparked a national debate about air quality on China’s microblogs, with a focus on levels of PM2.5 – a particularly dangerous air pollutant. From property tycoon Pan Shiyi to former head of Google China Kai-fu Lee, to children’s author Zheng Yuanjie, it seemed like everyone was microblogging about the capital’s air quality.

Employees and volunteers from the NGO Green Beagle went onto the streets with monitoring equipment to gather their own PM2.5 figures, data which they then published online. By the end of the year, other local groups including Green Hunan and Friends of Nature’s Wuhan branch had followed suit. Action by campaign groups and calls from opinion-leaders, compounded by the very many voices of the public and constant references to international experience, affected the government stance. 

On December 26 last year, environment minister Zhou Shengxian announced that “PM2.5 and ozone monitoring will start in key locations, including Beijing, Tianjin, Hubei and the Pearl and Yangtze River deltas.” The proposal was finally approved by the State Council, China’s highest administrative organ, on March 1. Official monitoring of PM2.5 is expected to start in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – where levels of public concern are highest – before the year is out.

International experience and the support of microblogging platforms played an important role here. And government openness to public opinion and prompt response to citizen demands made this case of public participation a success for all parties.

Over the past 20 years, the positive forces of NGO activity, guidance by an open-minded government and public actions have pushed forward public participation on behalf of society as a whole. But, while these three forces have on occasion found synergies, more often than not they have worked in isolation from each other. How to get these progressive forces to work better together as they promote broad participation in environmental protection is an important question for both society and government to answer over the next 20 years.

Another event of the past decade worth noting is the formation of the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology and the Green Choice Alliance. These two associations connect the worlds of business and environmental protection and mark the emergence of more mainstream recognition of the benefits of civil-society approaches to the environment.

Enlightened businesspeople are using their financial resources to help restructure civil-society environmental protection; while specialised consultants work to educate consumers about pollution and the activities of particular brands, in a bid to put influence corporate behaviour through market pressures. The market economy’s rise in China has led to destruction wrought by profit motives, but also to businesses seeking to fulfill their social responsibilities and respect consumer opinions, creating new possibilities for public participation in environmental protection.

China’s public faces environmental crises and challenges on a daily basis, while civil society is acquiring experience as it grows and develops. In every case of public participation, the government learns more and adjusts its role. For sustainable development to succeed, it must include all interested parties. Public opinion must be heard and valued, and decisions must be transparent and trusted. This is the kind of sustainable development China needs.

Chang Cheng is deputy director of Friends of Nature.

This article is published as part of our Green Growth project, a collaboration between chinadialogue and The Energy Foundation. 

Homepage image by Track01

A chronology of public participation in China’s sustainable development

*  January 18, 1994: Gisang Sonam Dorje, first secretary of the Western Committee of Zhiduo in Qinghai – set up to protect the Tibetan antelope – is shot and killed while transporting captured poachers. Inspired by his martyrdom, in April the next year Zhaba Dorje re-establishes the committee. Their armed anti-poaching team is known as the Wild Yak Brigade.

*  March 31, 1994: Friends of Nature, a nationwide membership organisation, is officially launched by Liang Congjie, Yang Dongping, Liang Xiaoyan and Wang Lixiong.

*  1995: Xi Zhinong exposes the destruction of natural forests in Deqin, Yunnan province, which is endangering the survival of the snub-nosed monkey. The story is picked up by a number of media outlets, as well as Friends of Nature. Eventually commercial felling in Deqin is halted.

*  2003: Green Earth Volunteers and other environmental NGOs launch a public campaign against hydropower development on the Nu River. In 2004, premier Wen Jiabao announces the shelving of development plans.

*  September 1, 2003: the Environmental Impact Assessment Law comes into effect; the first time public participation is a required part of environmental assessment reports.

*  April 2004: the State Council issues guidelines on administration in accordance with the law, stressing government by rule of law and putting forward “the promotion of openness of government information” and “administrative policy-decision mechanisms combining public participation, expert testimony and government decisions.”

*  June 5, 2004, the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology is formed, funded by around 100 well-known Chinese business figures.

*  March 2005: the media reveals that managers of the Old Summer Palace have drained the lake and are planning to lay an impermeable membrane without carrying out an environmental impact assessment, stirring public anger. The State Environmental Protection Agency (predecessor to the Ministry of Environmental Protection) holds China’s first public environmental hearing and ultimately orders changes to the project.

*  March 18, 2006: the former State Environmental Protection Bureau publishes rules on public participation in the environmental impact assessment process, and says the public are entitled to obtain abridged versions of the reports.

*  May 2006: the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) is founded in Beijing, with former journalist and environmental consultant Ma Jun as director and core founder. The organisation launches a pioneering map of water pollution.

*  June 1, 2007: thousands of Xiamen residents take to the streets for a “mass stroll” in protest at plans to build a PX chemical plant in the city. On December 16, the provincial and city governments give in to public opinion and relocate the project to Zhangzhou.

*  May 1, 2008: regulations on openness of government information and environmental data unveiled in April 2007 come into effect. The rules say openness should be the normal state of affairs, and secrecy the exception.

*  July 7, 2009: the All-China Environment Federation case against Jiangyin Container Company is accepted at Wuxi Environmental Court, the first time an NGO has brought an environmental case in the public interest.

*  August 2009: China’s largest internet portal Sina launches its microblogging service, and with it an era of public participation via microblogs and other social media. By the end of 2011 China has 250 million microblog users.

*  October 24, 2011: a draft revision of the Civil Procedure Law is submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for first consideration. The draft includes articles allowing for social groups not directly affected by a case to bring public interest environmental lawsuits. 

*  March 2012: the State Council approves a revised standard for air quality, including PM2.5 measurements, to be implemented in stages. In response to public demands, it is announced PM2.5 data from certain areas will be published four years ahead of the earlier timetable.