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Waste management and environmentalism in China
Waste management and environmentalism in China

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2 The growth of environmentalism

Pollution and waste has emerged as a main source of dissension in Chinese society. This is because it is a serious threat to health, particularly to the wellbeing of children, and is a national problem uniting citizens across the land – environmental problems are increasingly scrutinised by watchful Chinese ‘netizens’ (Grano, 2016).

Demanding more transparency from government on environmental issues is not perceived as a direct threat by the leadership, and is largely, although not always, tolerated. The vice-chair of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, Yang Zhaofei, estimates that the number of environmental protests has increased by an average of 29% every year since 1996, while in 2011 the number of major environmental protests more than doubled compared with 2010 (Jianqiang, 2013). Some people have felt sufficiently agitated to join environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which are seeking to bring about a change in public and government attitudes to encourage greater protection of the environment.

The ‘freeing up’ of Chinese society in the last decade has allowed public criticism of air pollution in particular. In the remainder of this course you will learn about how the growth of environmentalism has started in China and what these active citizens have managed to achieve in a relatively short amount of time. You will also read about some examples of pressure groups and how ‘science’ can be used to support various arguments and positions for these groups.

Those from China’s middle class have been the greatest beneficiaries of economic growth and have become major consumers. At the same time, they are at the forefront of protesting against the degradation of their environment. This is because once basic needs are met, and there is surplus giving security, people become concerned about the quality of their lives – having a clean environment is an important part of this. The rising middle class is beginning to promote environmental awareness and change to protect the environment.

The government’s focus on economic growth means that industrial output has been valued above natural ecosystem services, such as fresh air and clean water. But this does not go unchallenged. Many in Chinese society are unhappy with China’s development path, particularly the environmental destruction it has brought in its wake. As you found out previously in the Chinese Five-Year Plans, environmental concerns are beginning to have higher priorities along with the economy in China in such a way that this kind of destruction can no longer be ignored.