China’s New Species of Environmental Protest
By H Christoph Steinhardt & Fengshi Wu

China’s New Species of Environmental Protest

Mar. 28, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In the biological world, species evolve when environments change and well-adapted mutations produce offspring. Pattern of protest also evolve in response to changes in their socio-political environment. Innovative activists make use of emerging opportunities to catch decision-makers off guard. New species of protest arise when others imitate novel tactics from such transformative events and mold them further (McAdam and Sewell, 2001). In recent years, such processes have given birth to a new public-spirited type of environmental protest in China.1

Since the 1990s, social scientists have observed that protests in China have become much more common than in most other authoritarian regimes. Yet, scholars also noted that, first, demonstrations have overwhelmingly been very small and staged in the name of delimited social groups of villages, factories or residential compounds. Second, if resisters were able to press for concessions — such as the removal of a corrupt official, a pay raise, or a victory in a property dispute — these tend to be exclusively beneficial to their narrow constituencies. In the language of social science, such outcomes are called private or club goods. Third, protests have typically been reactive, seeking redress for acts that have already occurred. And, fourth, although policy advocacy — led by journalists, academics, NGOs, entrepreneurs, or even government officials — has also been on the rise, advocates and protesters have usually kept a noticeable distance. (See, for instance, Lorentzen, 2013; Mertha, 2009; O’Brien and Li, 2006). It is on these four dimensions that change has been most evident.

In 2007, the country was taken by surprise when two large mobile phone and Internet-organized demonstrations put the last nail into the coffin of a multi-billion RMB petrochemical project producing para-xylene (PX) in the city of Xiamen. Uncharacteristically, protests occurred before construction had begun and were staged explicitly in the name of all “the people of Xiamen” (Xiamen ren). Even more atypical, the events were set in motion by public opposition from politically connected Xiamen university professors, which paved the way for media agitation led by a prominent Xiamen-based blogger against the potential pollution and accident risks. Word of the demonstrations spread quickly via the Internet. Subsequently, dozens of large-scale protests against government-backed petrochemical plants, power plants, waste treatment facilities, and other major developmental projects occurred, often enough leading them to be halted or stopped. Many of these campaigns picked up key aspects of the Xiamen model, and some developed it further.

In 2011, residents of Nanjing engaged in online and media-based symbolic resistance in combination with a public sit-in, to save some of the city’s Republican Era Phoenix trees from being cut down for a subway extension project. Again, grassroots action and policy advocacy — by media figures, academics, an environmental NGO, and even a Taiwanese KMT official — reinforced each other and the authorities eventually backed down. Particularly notable in this case was the nature of the underlying grievance. The trees were being perceived as a symbol of Nanjing which had an intangible value that belonged to the public. Hence, one Internet user wrote passionately: “To us the Phoenix trees are not simply trees; they have nourished one generation after another from Nanjing, and they cannot be taken from our hearts. Nanjing residents take action! Let our voices be heard!”

In two further episodes, the role of policy advocacy by environmental NGOs became more prominent. In 2009, middle class residents in a wealthy suburb of Panyu in Guangzhou began to mobilize against a planned waste incinerator. After a series of demonstrations and collective petitions, in which the Panyu activists uncharacteristically linked up with villagers who were suffering from an already existing incinerator, the authorities eventually gave in. However, core members of the campaign did not stop there. With support from Beijing environmental activists, they formed the NGO Eco Canton (Yiju Guangzhou) in 2012. Since then, Eco Canton has become an influential cross-regional player in policy advocacy for urban waste management and anti-pollution activism.

The breakneck pace of economic development has produced an environmental crisis of disastrous proportions.

In 2013, the environmental groups Green Watershed and Green Kunming publicized their investigation of the site for a PX project 32 kilometers southwest of Kunming that had just won approval by the national authorities. The NGOs expressed serious concerns about its siting and potential impact on air quality. This initiated heated online debates and eventually triggered two large demonstrations that led the authorities to halt the project. Since then the two organizations have identified as their organizational priority the mobilization of the public to participate in environmental assessment processes and to monitor petrochemical projects in Kunming and Yunnan province.

In contrast to the prototypical repertoire of contention, this new type of resistance mobilizes large numbers of people unknown to one another, revolves around public goods of broad communities (clean air, the absence of accident risk, natural heritage), seeks to change policy by preventing controversial governmental acts from being implemented, and has narrowed the gap between those who protest and those who engage in policy advocacy. These characteristics are only displayed by a small proportion of the estimated over 100,000 protests annually. However, such cases have raised a lot of attention and serve as role models. In addition, activist networks have begun to link many of the smaller and more parochial anti-pollution protests. Researchers have also revealed that those who are willing to take to the streets for environmental issues in urban China are motivated by more fundamental discontent with the political system (Zhong and Hwang, 2015).

It should not surprise anyone that China’s environmental politics has been a particularly hospitable incubator for innovation. The breakneck pace of economic development has produced an environmental crisis of disastrous proportions. As has happened elsewhere before, rising standards of wealth and education have sensitized Chinese citizens to the risks of pollution and the quality of their living environment. And in contrast to the many other protest-provoking grievances in China, pollution affects everybody and is especially pronounced in the urban powerhouses. The Chinese leadership is therefore under tremendous pressure to solve these problems and has become increasingly vocal about it. At the opening session of the National People’s Congress in March 2014, and again in 2015, Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war against pollution.” Expressing concern about environmental problems is therefore endowed with a considerable degree of legitimacy.

Beyond that, three key dynamics have paved the way for the emergence of the new type of protest. First, the commercialization of the media and the development of the Internet and social media have produced a stock of journalists and opinion leaders who possess the capacity to mobilize latent collective identities and frame issues of public concern (Hassid, 2011; Tong and Lei, 2013). Second, the central government has become more sympathetic with protesters in its public communications, restrained local authorities’ discretion in using repression, while the growing importance of the private sector means that the state’s capacity to coerce urban residents as government employees has been weakened (Deng and O’Brien, 2013; Steinhardt, forthcoming). Hence, the perceived risk of protesting has declined and more people are willing to mobilize for causes that do not exclusively benefit themselves. Third, environmental NGOs have emerged in all provinces, and a number of groups have accumulated the necessary knowledge and organizational resources to support grassroots campaigns and to translate protesters’ demands into policy advocacy (Wu, 2013).

It remains to be seen how the new species of protest adapts to the changing political climate under Xi Jinping. A sea change in state responses to protest is not yet evident and environmental NGOs have been notably spared from the recent crack-downs on civil society. However, state pressure on the traditional media and Internet has increased noticeably. Three of the largest environmental protests in 2015, perhaps for this reason, seem not to have been characterized by elaborate media-based policy advocacy.2

Two things, however, are more certain. For one, the environment will remain high on the public agenda. In April 2015, the worst fears of Xiamen activists came true when a huge explosion occurred in the PX plant that had been relocated to neighboring Zhangzhou after the resistance. A few months later another chemical blast transformed parts of Tianjin into a toxic wasteland. Meanwhile, the thick smog blanketing China’s urban centers constantly reminds citizens of the hazards of pollution. For another, innovations in the protest repertoire have become part of China’s political culture and will not simply be forgotten. Even if a push-back by the state means that some tactics become less prominent for the time being, they will rebound once an opportunity presents itself. Although most protesters continue to steer clear of overtly political demands, contention has become more public-spirited. This trend is likely to stay.


1. This commentary is based on an article co-authored by H. Christoph Steinhardt and and Wu Fengshi (Steinhardt and Wu, 2016).

2. These were protests against the expansion of a power plant in Guangdong’s Heyuan, the construction of a waste incinerator in Guangdong’s Luoding and an alleged PX project in Shanghai’s Jinshan district.


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