By Michael Barr and Joy Y. Zhang, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Barr is lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University. Joy Zhang is lecturer in Sociology at the University of Kent. They are the authors of Green Politics in China: Environmental Governance and State-Society Relations. The views expressed are their own.
Recent images of top golfers and spectators donning protective masks at the LPGA in Beijing has once again raised questions about air quality in China. During the event, pollution reached “hazardous” levels, as determined by the U.S. Embassy and Beijing's own air quality monitors. Such a reading carries the warning that all people should avoid outdoor exertion and that the elderly, children and those with respiratory or heart disease should remain completely indoors.
There is no doubt that China has paid a heavy environmental price for its rapid development. One study determined that in four cities alone (Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi'an, Beijing) in 2012 over 8,500 people died prematurely because of pollution. The report also indicated that those cities suffered a combined economic loss of $1.09 billion.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, as well as the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, there seemed a glimmer of hope that air quality would improve. But one of the sad facts of the LPGA tournament is that beneath the headlines of big name athletes struggling to breathe, there lies over 20 million people who live in Beijing every day and have to endure the suffocating side effects of rapid industrialization, including a heavy reliance on coal power, and a dramatic increase in car ownership.
Yet despite these facts, there is reason for optimism. In the West, we give too little attention to the Chinese people’s response to the environmental crisis. The truth is that a quiet revolution is underway in China, where approximately 4,000 registered environmental NGOs are responding to the country’s needs. Increasingly, these groups are having an impact. One reason, for example, that we even have official readings from the Beijing government on the city’s air is because of the influence of an NGO known in English as Green Beagle. In recent years, the group has led a public campaign to pressure the Chinese government into standardizing and publishing its air quality monitors.
Many countries adopt an indicator known as PM2.5 to measure pollution levels. PM2.5 refers to particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter which are known to pose serious health risks. For a long time, China only used PM2.5 for laboratory research and never disclosed its municipal or national readings to the public. In 2009, however, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing started publishing its own PM2.5 readings on its website. Embarrassed by the discrepancy between these results and its own monitors, the Chinese government criticized the United States, claiming that their readings were not representative of the entire city – a point that American officials did not dispute.
However, the diplomatic tit for tat gave staff at Green Beagle an idea. In 2011, it started arming its members and public volunteers with compact, hand-held PM2.5 monitors. Their idea was that if ordinary people agreed to carry them around, it would establish a PM2.5 trail. As long as volunteers kept records of the time and location of their movements, Green Beagle would be able to create and publish an aggregated dataset of Beijing’s air quality at diverse locations and different times of the day.
The experiment worked. Not long after Green Beagle began their campaign, a number of environment groups in different Chinese cities soon mobilized the public to do the same. With the help of widespread media coverage, this led to a national campaign called “I Monitor the Air for My Country.” Eventually the Chinese government relented. Today, authorities monitor and publicize data from over 100 cities and have plans to expand their PM2.5 stations.
Of course monitoring air quality is not the same as actually improving it. Yet in a country where government controlled media was once the only real source of information, grassroots attempts to spread environmental knowledge is a bigger deal than some may realize. And although the authorities initially resisted publishing PM2.5 data, in many cases the central government is on the side of green NGOs.
Too often, analysts assume that authoritarian states are able to act uniformly to ensure control over civil society. But increasingly, the Chinese government has recognized the importance of civil organizations in filling the gap of government services and helping to mitigate social conflict – especially, it must be said, on issues such as the environment that threaten the Communist Party’s own hold on power.
Other green NGOs have also made a difference on issues from curtailing commercial exploitation of the Tibetan Plateau, to pressuring suppliers of Apple products into taking responsibility for the illegal dumping of heavy metals. This is important not only for helping to raise environmental awareness, but also because of the potential for political reform that such movements bring, from strengthening accountability and transparency to help shifting political and economic priorities away from the notion of growth at any cost.
As one Beijing based activist put it to us:
“There are social resources and social energies that are in deep sleep in China. Environmental protection here must have the ability to somehow transform these social resources, those people around you, into a sustainable force. If one only talks and acts within one’s own circle, then you are stuck with your own imagination and your own limits.”
In the short term, images like those we saw at the LPGA in Beijing are bound to continue. Longer term, however, no one should mistake the power of a growing middle class to influence its own environmental future – or to awaken its “social energies” and bring about meaningful political change.