'China and the Environment' provides a unique report on the experiences of participatory politics that have emerged in response to environmental problems, rather than focusing only on macro-level ecological issues and their elite responses. Featuring previously untranslated short interviews, extracts from reports and other translated primary documents, the authors argue that going green in China isn't just about carbon targets and energy policy; China's grassroots green defenders are helping to change the country for the better.
About the Author
Sam Geall is Departmental Lecturer in Human Geography of China at the University of Oxford and Executive Editor of chinadialogue.net. He is an editor of 'Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability 7/10: China, India, and East and Southeast Asia: Assessing Sustainability'. Sam has written for many international publications including The Guardian, Foreign Policy, New Humanist, openDemocracy, Index on Censorship and Green Futures. He is a Fellow of the RSA.
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China And The Environment
The Green Revolution
By Sam Geall
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2013 Sam Geall
All rights reserved.
China's environmental journalists: a rainbow confusion
There are fish like snake-fish and trout, perch and tench, red-eye and yellow-gill, dace and carp, bream, sturgeon, skate, mandarin-fish, flying-fish, bass, mullet and wax-fish: a rainbow confusion of colours blurred, glistening brocade, cloud-fresh schools nibbling duckweed, frolicking in waves, drifting among ghost-eye, flowing deep.
Xie Lingyun (trans. David Hinton)
These lines are from 'Dwelling in the Mountains', described as the first environmental poem in Chinese. Its fifth-century author, Xie Lingyun, puzzled over and catalogued myriad species in the waters of eastern China, with what historian Mark Elvin called 'a flicker of proto-Darwinian insight', almost as biologists would centuries later.
In early 2010, some two centuries after Charles Darwin's birth, my interest in Xie's heirs – the environmental writers of contemporary China – first led me to an unassuming, squat grey building by the 4th Ring Road in north-western Beijing. This is home to an ambitious non-governmental group known in Chinese as 'DarwinNature University'. In English, the organisation goes by the name Green Beagle, referring to HMS Beagle, the sloop-of-war on which the great naturalist sailed.
Green Beagle brings together amateur naturalists, students, journalists and environmental activists for walks, talks and free-ranging discussions on topics from wildlife photography to grasslands preservation and the deterioration of Beijing's waterways. In the spirit of Darwin himself, whose prolific letter-writing meant that he could marshal amateur enthusiasm to effectively 'crowd-source' scientific evidence for natural selection from a great many volunteers, the NGO uses 'citizen science' to support popular participation in environmental protection across Beijing.
When a public controversy erupted at the end of 2011 about the yawning gulf between Beijing's official and unofficial air-pollution statistics (see Chapter 2), it was Green Beagle that helped organise the capital's residents to use home-testing kits and post their own air-quality readings online.
Green Beagle is the vision of Feng Yongfeng, one of China's best-known environmental journalists, who has gone to considerable lengths to shine a light into China's waters, even if what he overwhelmingly finds today is not, like Xie Lingyun, a 'rainbow confusion' of bright-hued fish, but pollution – and the murk of censorship and obfuscation.
Feng is a campaigning journalist affiliated to Guangming Daily, an influential state-owned newspaper traditionally associated with China's intellectuals and the country's registered minority parties. (The People's Republic technically has a multi-party government, which allows eight parties to exist under the political control of the Communist Party. These include the Revolutionary Committee of the Kuomintang, the Jiusan Society and the China Democratic League – not to be confused with banned parties such as the Democracy Party of China.)
This is not entirely unusual: China's growing citizen environmental movement has emerged with its changing media environment. A great many of China's most prominent ecological campaigners – the first generation of Chinese environmentalists in the reform era – were also the first investigative journalists to operate in that more open media environment.
Liu Detian, a journalist at Panjin Daily News, founded China's first legal environmental NGO in 1991, dedicated to protecting the black-beaked gulls of north-eastern China. Liao Xiaoyi, who founded Global Village of Beijing in 1996, is a journalist and documentary-maker. Ma Jun, director of the data-focused Beijing-based NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and winner of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize, started his career as an investigative reporter at the South China Morning Post. Wang Yongchen, who founded Green Earth Volunteers – one of China's biggest environmental NGOs and an influential force in the movements against dam-building in China's south-west (see Chapters 2 and 5) – was a radio broadcaster. The list goes on.
However, Green Beagle also actively encourages ordinary people to write about their environment – the group runs regular 'citizen journalism' training workshops, for example – and this helps to demonstrate the link between China's more open media environment and its growing citizen environmental consciousness.
Feng has a long-standing interest in how China's deteriorating environment is understood by ordinary people around the country. In his writing, he has championed the cases of local citizens engaging with their environments, such as Liu Zhenxiang, a 48-year-old taxi driver who came up with his own solution for Beijing's chronic drought. In 2007, when the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau called for public suggestions on creating a green Olympic Games the following year, Liu submitted an article – 28,000 characters long, equivalent to around 14,000 words – titled 'Drought in Northern China: Its Causes and Solutions'. Feng wrote in chinadialogue that Liu's essay had identified the origins of the drought as being a vicious cycle: decreasing precipitation, declining groundwater, less evaporation and continuing drought across the region. Liu proposed a three-step solution: a programme of reforestation; letting water out of reservoirs to boost groundwater reserves; and storing water in wetlands, marshes, ponds and pools across the farmland around Beijing.
The cabbie told Feng that he saw the land 'as a person', with the rivers 'as blood vessels', and pools that 'keep the blood circulating'. Beijing was massively overexploiting its groundwater. In the suburb of Shunyi, said Liu, residents had to dig wells 70 metres deep before they saw any water. 'If my water storage plan were put into action,' he continued, 'we could stop these plummeting groundwater levels.' But Liu Zhenxiang's plan was never adopted – and Beijing's water troubles have continued beyond the Olympics.
Feng also helped to bring to public attention the efforts of Liu Futang – 65 years old, no relation to Liu Zhenxiang – who more recently took to using his Sina Weibo account (a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, which is blocked by the nationwide internet censorship system popularly known as the 'Great Firewall') to expose environmental destruction in the island province of Hainan, in the South China Sea.
Liu Futang is a retired forestry official who had once piloted fire-spotting planes in north-eastern China. Liu only started his microblog upon retirement in 2011. He had become concerned about the environmental and social impacts of the island's transformation into a playground for elite tourists from overseas. (The island is famous for its beaches, and perhaps best known for the Boao Forum for Asia, an international gathering of business and government leaders modelled on the World Economic Forum at Davos.)
The development of Hainan island meant that farmers were resettled and fields and bays were ruined. So when Liu discovered that a state-owned property developer planned to build a marina on the south-eastern coast which would destroy a mangrove forest of nipa palms, an important element of the coastal ecological balance, he became worried. Not a word about the planned marina project had appeared in the local media. So, using the handle 'Hainan Liu Futang', Liu started microblogging about the proposal. The story soon went viral: the day after Liu first posted about the story, a reporter from Beijing had arrived in Hainan to speak to him. Soon, Liu had given nearly a hundred interviews. When government officials came to speak with Liu about the controversy, he posted their conversations online.
In the end, Liu's campaign didn't save the mangrove forest, though subsequent developments in the region were stalled. But in spring 2012, Liu used his microblog to voice criticism of the proposed construction of a coal-fired power station on the southwestern tip of the island. In March and April, thousands of people demonstrated against the plans, and Liu was there to microblog their progress. Significantly, Liu included some of this online commentary in a book, which he published at his own expense. Feng wrote that Liu and other citizen journalists 'embody the environmental responsibilities of the citizen and demonstrate that today it is becoming easier for anyone to protect the environment'.
On 5 December 2012, the Longhua District People's Court in Hainan found Liu Futang guilty of 'illegal business activities'. The court imposed a 17,000-yuan (around US$2,727) fine and a three-year prison sentence, which was suspended. His crime? Privately printing, giving away and selling a number of books, based on his blogs, about his local environmental protection efforts.
To really understand the role that citizens can play in defending China's natural world, we will need to consider this changing media landscape, and its ability, or not, to respond to important environmental issues and scientific debates. In this chapter, I will introduce some of China's most pioneering journalists – including some of the authors that appear in this book and have appeared in chinadialogue over the past years – and how they report often complex and politically sensitive environmental issues. I will explore some of the contours, the limits, the obstacles and the institutions that shape reporting about environmental issues in China, and ask what this might tell us about the country's changing society and government.
The media environment
One of the factors that has transformed Chinese society over the past three decades has been a great increase in access to information. In turn, this has helped to transform attitudes to China's environment and the problems it faces.
In the Mao era, information was heavily controlled by the state and great catastrophes occurred without being reported in the national media. In August 1975, the worst dam failure in world history occurred in Henan province, after a typhoon hit the south-eastern province of Fujian and gathered strength as it twisted and turned up through China's central plains. The 25-metre-high Banqiao Reservoir Dam collapsed, triggering the failure of a second dam and a cascade of destruction that wiped out entire villages. Survivors recalled the bursting dam sounding like the sky collapsing. Houses and trees disappeared in an instant as human and animal corpses floated to the surface of the floodwaters.
The terrible death toll remained a state secret until 2005. Records now state that 26,000 people died from flooding and a further 145,000 people died in the epidemic disease and famine that then blighted the region. But even three decades later, the state newspaper People's Daily wrote euphemistically of a disaster that had 'long been ignored', rather than concealed.
Until the 1990s, all newspapers were subsidised by the government, either as official publications of the Party or specialised papers affiliated to mass organisations. However, following the authorisation of advertising in newspapers in 1979, non-Party papers started to gain in importance. Local papers started punching above their weight. Government-run newspapers began to spawn so-called 'child' papers as moneymakers. Some became known for their reporting about anywhere except their home province. Media outlets multiplied rapidly – and, crucially, they increasingly competed for audiences by covering issues of public concern.
Environmental reporting grew to become an important and dynamic part of the media landscape. Coverage of Green issues in Chinese newspapers grew steadily through the 1990s and accelerated through the following decade. Around 2007, coverage of climate change exploded after the publication of the Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a major global report that underscored the scientific consensus on global warming.
In the past few years, many Chinese newspapers have launched environment sections. Most popular websites, portals and online messaging services now have Green channels. Many of the more independent publications in China – including Caijing, New Century Weekly, Economic Observer and Southern Weekend – have become known for their hard-hitting reports on environmental issues. Since these stories are seen as less politically sensitive than, for example, stories directly concerned with rights and governance, articles about sustainability-related topics have increasingly been used as vehicles for addressing social issues, from institutional corruption to the lack of transparency or public participation in policymaking.
Liu Jianqiang, one of China's best-known environmental journalists and a contributor to this volume (see Chapter 5), said about this phenomenon in a 2010 interview: 'The environment in China is not politics; politics is very sensitive. Journalists do find it easier to report about the environment.' He continued: 'my question has always been who is really harming China's environment? It's not you, me or the common people. It's the huge interest groups out there. From local governments to companies and corporations, there are huge stakes in maximizing profit.'
Control, change and confusion
Qian Gang, former managing editor at the liberal Guangzhou-based newspaperSouthern Weekend and an academic at Hong Kong University, has described the contemporary Chinese media as characterised by three 'C's: control, change and chaos. His colleague David Bandurski suggests an alternative variation for the last characteristic: confusion. However you choose to render it, any survey of environmental reporting in China is likely to turn up all of the Cs.
First is control. To see evidence of that paradigm, one can look to the continuance of periodic media blackouts around environmental incidents. For example, consider in late 2009, when chinadialogue tried to conduct an investigation in the city of Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in southern China's Pearl River Delta – which is reported to have high rates of occupational and pollution-related diseases. The researchers were continually rebuffed. Time and again, requests for interviews were refused; the environmental protection bureau, the local hospital, oncologists and environmental scientists all remained tight-lipped; even the proceedings of public academic conferences on environmental medicine were said to be confidential. One soil expert who agreed to an interview had to consult government officials first, who told him not to make any data available to the researchers.
Or consider the nine days in July 2010, when the Zijin Mining Company managed to suppress media reports about a massive leak from one of its copper mines into the Ting River in Fujian province. The leak caused the death of more than 1,500 tonnes of fish. A month after the disaster (1 September 2010), villagers told the Southern Metropolis Daily that they used to catch turtles, grouper, beard fish and eels in the river. Now it was mostly dead, and eating what you caught was said to be 'as dangerous as taking poison'.
On 21 June 2011, users of the microblogging service Sina Weibo read this short post: 'Two wells at a Bohai oil field have been leaking for two days. I hope the leaks are controlled and pollution prevented.' Censors worked fast to delete the original post, but it spread even faster. It was likely written by a whistle-blower at China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC), the state-owned Chinese company that forms half of a joint venture with ConocoPhillips at an oilfield in the Bohai Sea, off China's north-eastern coast. It turned out to have been true. In the end, the size of the oil sheen officially reached about 2,500 barrels, polluting around 4,250 square kilometres of sea. However, the State Oceanic Administration did not confirm the leak until an entire month later. Later that same summer, nearby in the north-eastern coastal city of Dalian, residents took to the streets to oppose a planned paraxylene (PX) factory (see Chapter 4). Microblog posts containing slogans and pictures of the protests were quickly scrubbed from the Internet. Censors filtered the word 'stroll' (sanbu), which was employed by activists to describe the demonstrations.
Asked what the greatest obstacle is to reporting climate change in China, one journalist told me: 'Information is not transparent enough. The government contacts the media only when the government needs to express something in the media, but the government rarely grants interview requests – and officials often just speak in official language' (Beijing, 23 June 2010). So, traditional forms of media control still exist. But what about the second C: change?
Excerpted from China And The Environment by Sam Geall. Copyright © 2013 Sam Geall. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The return of Chinese civil society - Isabel Hilton 1. China's environmental journalists: a rainbow confusion - Sam Geall 2. The birth of Chinese environmentalism: key campaigns - Olivia Boyd 3. The Yangzonghai case: struggling for environmental justice - Adam Moser 4. Alchemy of a protest: the case of Xiamen PX - Jonathan Ansfield 5. Defending Tiger Leaping Gorge - Liu Jianqiang