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Public participation: highs and lows

Green thinking is on the ascendant in China, but the public is still confused. Public participation needs to top the environmental agenda – for government and NGOs, writes Song Xinzhou.

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Three highs and one low” is used to describe projects that are high input, high energy consumption, high pollution and low efficiency. The phrase has been used by China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) to describe polluters denied project approval in the past year. But over the same period, public participation in the environment seems to have developed its own “three highs and one low”. Enthusiasm is “high”, calls for support are “high”, the costs are certainly high – but the overall social impact is low.

Low enthusiasm

Enthusiasm for public participation in China may seem high, but this is mainly because more people have been directly affected by increasingly frequent ecological disasters. These catastrophes have started to impact whole regions, rather than just isolated areas. The rural environment has long been neglected by government, and polluting industries enjoy less regulation and lower costs. Village after village is struck down by illness due to long-term pollution health effects, and locals are taking to the frontlines of environmental protection. In urban areas, oversights and a lack of coordination between various agencies – planning, environmental, health, city administration, street committees and the police – have led to lots of small issues building into big problems. Enormous interest groups are appearing, which have negative effects on people's lives. In order to defend their own health and rights, people are being forced to care about the environment.

But this enthusiasm, aroused by specific events that directly affect people’s lives, is often transitory and unreal. When an interest in the environment only stems from a desire to protect our basic needs, we often lose interest as soon as the problem has been slightly alleviated and life can return to normal. The enthusiasm for participation evaporates before the problem has actually been solved.

False enthusiasm is also created by the identical green events that have sprung up in recent years like bamboo shoots after the spring rain. These events are often run by businesses to serve their own interests and distribute company propaganda. A lack of environmental knowledge, leadership and management means the public is often misled by these events and can lose the ability to discriminate between different sources of environmental information.

Much public enthusiasm is superficial and stems from a pragmatic need to protect one's own interests. In short, it is nothing more than an illusion.

Calls for support

The Chinese government has increased its focus on the environment in recent years. National and local media outlets have carried out propaganda efforts. Most of national broadcaster CCTV’s channels have aired programmes about the environment.

But the involvement of interest groups and the complexity of environmental issues means misleading information is still disseminated, which is influencing people's lifestyle, work and investment choices. Readers looking for proof of this phenomenon need look no further than the forestry companies making money under the banner of conservation.

There is also an increasing number of environmental awards. However, businesses and officials take part in these events to improve their image, and the public is confused. People want to know: “What can we do about the environment?”

Government and media intervention has, of course, helped to alleviate and draw attention to environmental problems. But China is a huge country, and even 24-hour broadcasts would only cover a small proportion of these issues, which have built up over decades. The exasperated sighs of SEPA officials, who deal with local governments and firms that protect their own interests by concealing the truth, are a testament to this. Moreover, limits placed on reporting mean many problems do not receive timely attention.

SEPA’s recent efforts have been praiseworthy, but the department has limited powers to enforce the law. Local governments’ attitudes when faced by SEPA inspection teams reveal their opinion of environmental protection. As soon as their interests are infringed upon, they react fiercely. We need to study the implications of the untimely death of “green GDP” and the strong resistance it received from local government. The apparent expansion of green thinking should not make us blindly optimistic. Beneath the surface, many problems are still unsolved. The spread of environmental knowledge by the government and media still has its deficiencies. If we don't recognise this, how can we take appropriate action?

High costs

There are three main ways that China continues to pay a high cost for its environmental problems. First, there is relatively small value of its efforts to control environmental problems. Second, the pursuit of short-term development continues to trump the inestimable future value of sustainable long-term development. Third, environmental problems have given rise to many “mass incidents”, as people attempt to uphold their rights.

It may appear that the government foots the bill in the first two cases, but in fact it is the public that pays the price, since funds that could be used for economic development, poverty alleviation, education and other social services end up being used to tackle environmental problems.

The greatest cost to public participation is the third type, however. Since there is only a low level of awareness regarding public participation, many people will only participate spontaneously when their rights are infringed. Gathering evidence and taking offenders to court is extremely difficult, and people cannot afford to pay experts to take samples and carry out tests. In any case, expert organisations are often funded or managed by local government and may not even help. An added problem is that protests can leave people open to revenge attacks from local government and other interest groups.

NGOs: low impact

For these reasons, citizens concerned about the environment are turning away from participation. The public is becoming a passive observer of government activity, cynical and mistrustful of environmental governance. Those who do take part are concerned, wondering if the government will act. Public ignorance concerning environmental policy means their effectiveness is limited.

Environmental NGOs, after more than a decade of existence in China, should play a part in environmental protection. These groups, however, which should be the most active in encouraging public participation and spreading knowledge, seem divorced from the public. They should not become green cliques with their own private concerns.

Many green NGOs lack expertise and are simply made up of concerned citizens. They can be more emotional than rational, and ill-equipped to put forward proposals on the environment. This can make them seem closed to the public. Immersed in a world of their own, they can become desensitised to the real environmental problems. There are few NGOs effectively spreading environmental information among the public.

There is also no complete system for the government management of NGOs. Many green NGOs have an ambiguous status. Their development is restricted and they have problems with operations and management. The level of public recognition is low when it comes to NGOs, apart from a few with expert members that have been influential in specific cases.

The road ahead for Chinese environmental protection lies in public participation. Innovation and experimentation also will be essential. Only cooperation between government, industry and the public will bring about real change and a new era in public participation in the environment.

 

Song Xinzhou is the founder of the website Green Beijing. This article is an extract of a piece that first appeared on the website.

Homepage photo by wjpbennett

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

同意此处观点

在中国的几个月中,我在香山公园参加了一个事件叫做“中国国际环境保护行动”(2006年9月16日)。有一个保护环境的演讲,还有一大堆塑料瓶子,每个人都为之雀跃,然后人们开始销售用循环材料做成的商品,这就是它的延伸。我没有看到任何具有创意或者有意义的想法代替保护环境。例如北京国际村似乎得到了好多奖励,但又怎样?商业在利用这个繁荣。去保定和德州,那里有中国的“太阳山谷”,山谷的街灯都是太阳能的,哦耶!
所以,我们怎样得到更多的公共参与?是的,律师和关系的费用很高。但是也许我们可以开始得到环境问题真正的准确的焦点。
请每个人应该从这里学起,中国政府改变数据使北京每年看来拥有更多的优秀的空气质量。
嘲讽的
鲍勃

agree with the points made here

Within the first few months I was in China, I attended an event called "Sino-International Environmental Protection Event" (Sept 16 2006) in Xiangshan Park. There was a speech on protecting the environment, and then there was a big pile of plastic bottles and everyone clapped for it (yay!), and then people tried to sell products made out of recycled materials. That was the extent of it. In terms of Chinese NGOs, I have seen few creative or meaningful ideas in terms of protecting the environment. Global Village of Beijing for instance, seems to get a lot of awards, but for what? Businesses are certainly taking advantage of this boom. Go to Baoding, or Dezhou, these are the "solar valleys" of China, where the streetlights are powered by solar panels, oohh aahh!

So how do we get more public participation? Yes, the cost of guanxi and lawyers is high. But maybe we can start with getting real, accurate information on the gravity of environmental problems.

Everyone please begin by reading how the Chinese government altered data to make it seem like Beijing has more blue sky days every year: here

Cynically,
Bob

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回复:信息

Bob,我赞成关于信息是有效参与的关键。正如我在厦门PX事件那篇文章的评论里所提到的一样,同样还需要的是一个为实施众议而明确规定的方案,而不是一个简单的承诺,没有实质和确切内容。中国的众议一般不超过一天,而欧洲同样的议题可能至少持续一年。

Re: information

Bob,
I agree that information is crucial to effective participation. As I just mentioned in a comment on the Xiamen PX article, it seems what is also needed is clearly defined frameworks for carrying out public consultatations, rather than simply commitments to participation without substance and specification. Chinese public consultations have been known to last no longer than a day (when a European equivalent might last a year, at least) - SL

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

参与也有层次

民生问题层出不穷的今天,关乎民生之基本权利的一些参与尚未保证,环保公众参与如此不如人意也是意料之中.

Participation is also layered

Today there are a vast number of problems in public life, and no guarantee of basic rights. Mass public participation in environmental protection campaigns is poor - this, surely, isn't surprising.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

简介信息有误,请更正

简介中的“宋仙洲”应该更正为“宋欣洲”.

“……为此,宋仙洲指出,……”这里明显错误啊。

A Mistake in The Introduction - Please Change

In the Chinese version of this article, the Chinese characters used for the authors name in the introduction are wrong:

"Public participation needs to top the environmental agenda – for government and NGOs, writes Xinzhou Song."

Currently the Chinese characters are Xinxian Song, rather than Xinzhou Song. Could someone possibly change the article?