Environmental discontent and China’s urban middle class

Pressure from China's urban middle classes could force officials to commit more strongly to upholding environmental principles

In 1980, with China having just embarked on its reform and opening up period, 71% of the country’s population lived in rural areas. In 2011, official data revealed that, for the first time in its history, China had become a predominantly urban society.

During that time, new metropolises have appeared almost out of nowhere. For example, little over 30 years ago Shenzhen was a relative backwater with 30,000 residents. Its population now exceeds 10 million. Elsewhere, China’s older cities have changed beyond all recognition. 

Former mayor of Shanghai Han Zheng once compared his city’s outward expansion with Chinese pancakes (tan da bing) commonly sold by street vendors, which get bigger and bigger as the batter spreads out in an ever-increasing circle .

Newly constructed housing communities, some of which contain thousands of residential units, have contributed to this urban sprawl. Their appearance is part of a bigger story—the commercialisation of the housing sector and the emergence of an urban middle class. 

As recently as the 1990s, most urban dwellers lived in accommodation provided by their work units (danwei). But this has all changed. Vast swathes of Maoist-era urban accommodation have been demolished. Millions of residents have been propelled onto the housing ladder through government subsidised replacement apartments, and through newly earned wealth that has enabled them to purchase real estate on the free market. 

A sizeable proportion of these homeowners form part of a new urban middle class. Although estimates of the size of this social group vary considerably, most commentators agree that a Chinese middle class is beginning to form.

Middle class discontent

In China the relationship between the middle class and the state is arguably underpinned by an implicit social contract based on prosperity and social stability. The former have been allowed to accumulate wealth under the reform and opening-up policy. Many people have chosen to invest their money in real estate. In return, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked hard to uphold social stability. As a result, the urban middle classes have generally remained politically docile supporters of the status quo from which they have derived considerable benefit. For its part, the CCP has actively encouraged the development of a middle class to drive consumption and serve as a buffer between it and relatively deprived groups.

At the same time, scholar Cheng Li has argued that middle class citizens have a higher rate of participation in “rights-upholding” activities than other groups, are more likely to pursue legal action to resolve disputes, and display lower tolerance towards official malfeasance.

Given their superior resources, including personal connections (guanxi), internet access, and financial stability, the middle classes are well placed to wage protracted campaigns to protect their rights and interests. Most disputes involving middle class citizens are related to housing issues, including unfavorable (and sometimes illegal) changes to the surrounding environment that undermine—or threaten to undermine—homeowners’ quality of life.

Recently, some of these disputes have gained considerable domestic and international media coverage. Rapid urbanisation has placed strain on existing infrastructure, from telecommunications to waste treatment facilities, thus requiring construction of new facilities. Urban governments have also tried to attract external investment, sometimes in the form of polluting factories that end up competing with real estate for precious urban land. The result—as seen, for example, in the Xiamen anti-PX campaign—can be the construction of potentially polluting projects next to residential developments that have been marketed as clean places to live.

Opposition to waste incinerators is a case in point. To cope with growing quantities of waste, which is linked to urbanisation, the Chinese authorities plan to have over 300 incinerators by the conclusion of the current 12th Five Year Plan. Incinerator opponents point out that burning waste produces pollutants such as dioxins that could have deleterious health consequences. And it also potentially affects house prices in nearby communities. As environmental lawyer Zhang Jingjing put it, "People started to think, I’ve spent all of this money myself to buy this home. What are the dangers around me?"

Relocating pollution

In one sense, disruption to people’s everyday lives by planned waste incinerators, and other unwelcome projects that affect their health and financial interests, undermines the prosperity/stability social contract. Grievances that have previously remained dormant, subsumed within the social contract, are increasingly voiced.

For example, the issue of whether, or to what extent, homeowners should be allowed to participate in decisions about where projects are sited has featured prominently in many campaigns. The 2002 Environmental Impact Assessment Law allows for public participation, but only to a limited degree.

However, people are calling for participation and transparency above and beyond the limited provisions provided by law. Whether or not this dissatisfaction will translate into policy change remains an open question. However, pressure from the middle classes could force officials to commit more strongly to these principles. 

Chinese officials may decide—like their American counterparts before them—to pre-empt societal opposition by locating polluting projects in communities that are less likely, or able, to resist. This policy may serve the interests of the middle class residents just fine.