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.

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