Pressure groups and politics
There is clear evidence that environmental NGOs are expanding the political space within which they operate. They are engaging with a growing number of environmental issues. These range from the relatively safe issue of air pollution to the more politically sensitive contesting of big hydroelectric dam projects to polluted water systems, contaminated soil, excessive noise or tainted drinking water. Environmental NGOs are facilitating citizens’ right to know, to debate and to contest environmental policy.
Environmental politics in China are encouraging public action and addressing people’s grievances. The environment is a relatively safe issue about which to become politically aware and active. But environmental politics could be helping to build a more active civil society.
Civil society is the arena where people come together to pursue shared interests, purposes and values. It largely operates in the space between the economy (the market) and the state (government). It is an instrument to inject the interests of people and society into a dialogue with the market and state sectors regarding how society is governed.
A new law on environment protection came into effect in 2015 in response to widespread protests over air quality (China Dialogue, 2016). The law assigns a role to environmental NGOs and civil society to act as watchdogs and start legal proceedings against companies and local governments violating the law. In 2016, the Chinese Supreme Court also granted environmental NGOs more power to use the courts to pursue those that flout environmental protection laws (The Guardian, 2015). They will also be allowed to sue firms or individuals across China, regardless of where the organisation is based. This demonstrates that central government is surrendering some political space to combat environmental degradation. How far a young civil society will open up Chinese politics is being keenly watched both within China and beyond.
The political inertia around environmental issues that characterises many regional governments is a major problem. Regional officials believe that as long as they are delivering on economic growth targets without too much local protest, they can expect to be considered for promotion by central government regardless of how polluted and degraded their regions are (Albert and Xu, 2016). Moreover, they often have close ties with the local businesses and factories that cause the pollution and degradation, which further compromises their willingness to act.
Central government has tried a range of strategies to encourage local officials to take environmental pollution more seriously, including revoking honorary titles, ruining career prospects, and naming and shaming offenders. However, many officials remain resistant to change (Graham-Harrison, 2008). More recently, central government has been encouraging more public participation in environmental management decision-making through the use of, for example, citizen juries (regarding the site of waste facilities) and so-called ‘green assessment’ techniques for citizen participation. Grano (2016) cites the use of the latter in resolving a tree-felling dispute in Nanjing where citizen participation actually distracted public opposition to the tree-felling possibly because citizens held a diverse array of views as to why trees should be saved. Central government has also tried to punish polluting companies by banning them from listing on the stock market, suspending their operations or shutting them down.