OPINION | China’s Environmental Civil Society

OPINION | China’s Environmental Civil Society

By Xiaofan Li 
Institutional Research and Assessment, Washington DC, USA

Image Attribute: Beijing Smog / Source: LWYand (Flickr CC)

Image Attribute: Beijing Smog / Source: LWYand (Flickr CC)


Civil society, the existence of autonomous, non-governmental organizations polishing the rough edges of our society, expands the sphere of people’s freedom and autonomy in their social life. The dichotomy between civil society and government indicates that civil society is an ideally structured domain devoid of state’s control and arbitration.

A much more mature and effective environmental protection mechanism in many developed and democratic countries can be attributed to their relatively robust public support and a more advanced civil society.

Although globalization and information technology introduce a large volume of international ideas to the Chinese and many of them are conscious of a burgeoning civil society in China and even strive to promote it, its growth is far from strong enough to trigger a political revolution against the ruling party. Despite the attempts that Chinese leadership at both the national and sub-national levels has been making to streamline bureaucratic administration through reforms (Forster, 2006), political guidelines are still largely inclined to quash public grievances on miscellaneous social problems. 

In addition, by shifting public attention to economic prosperity in tandem with police coercion and even occasional use of military crackdown (MacKinnon, 2008), the Chinese Communist Party has successfully dampened the development of civic society in China. In such an authoritarian regime, publicly organized demonstrations and protests against environmental pollution are greatly inhibited, civic discourse and complaints about the environmental issue are discouraged, and reports of cases of environmental infractions via media are mostly censored.

Recent research found a new direction of public counteraction toward environmental crisis (Jing, 2000; O’Brien & Li, 2006; Tilt, 2010). By mobilizing citizens’ support and employing lenient rhetoric to exert influence on government, this kind of “peaceful” resistance exists and operates at the periphery of the formal political oversight. Organized protests against environmental damage have been on the rise and government became more tolerant of this kind of confrontation, provided that it is restricted on a local level and small in scale (Oi, 2001; Tilt, 2010). 

One most significant and inspiring victory accomplished by civic movements took place in 2006 in Xiamen, one of the Special Economic Development Zones located in southeastern China. Xiamen is reputed for its scenery coastal lines and good environmental quality throughout the years. Thanks for the massive opposition by the Xiamen citizens of all social levels, a large-scale petrochemical factory to be invested and operated by Taiwanese was forced to alter its original blueprint and eventually was established in another area (Pan, 2006).

In spite of these encouraging progresses, the existence of criticism about the status quo is mainly sporadic and confined in a “safety zone”, where the voice of the grass-roots remains flimsy and compartmentalized (Schofer, 2008). Civic engagement and public support for environmental protection invariably find it difficult to penetrate into China’s political system as an institutional factor shaping legislation and administration. The legal framework for public participation in China, albeit progressive in the long run, is ill-defined and inconsistently enforced.

Copyright © 2013 Xiaofan Li. 
This is an open-access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License. 

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