Last December, a grim smog descended upon the bustling city of Shijiazhuang in China’s Heibei Province; the streets became a gritty grey, and figures just blocks away became mere roaming shadows. In order to stave off the dangers of simply breathing outdoors, local resident Li Guixin took extra steps to protect himself that month, purchasing a number of face masks, an air purifier, and a treadmill for indoor exercise at a total cost of about $1,600 USD.
However, Li doesn’t believe this bill is his to foot. On Feb. 20 of this year, he made headlines when he announced his plans to take the Shijiazhuang Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to court in order to seek compensation over smog, simultaneously claiming to be the first to ever make such an attempt.
In an interview with the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily, he explained his reasoning and opinion: the people are suffering from the side effects of air pollution, and it is the government’s fault for either not holding polluters accountable or not setting its environmental standards high enough. Li asserted, “The reason that I’m proposing administrative compensation is to let every citizen see that, amid this haze, we’re the real victims.”
The simple act of breathing has become a dangerous threat to one’s health in areas across China. Last year alone, only three of 74 monitored cities met even the minimum air quality standards according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and former health minister Chen Zhu has written that an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 premature deaths are caused by air pollution every year in China, to name only two of the hundreds of staggering statistics.
“The crisis is horrible,” Mary Alice Haddad, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University, told the Observer over the phone. “[The Chinese government] has done a lot, actually [to curb pollution]. But whether it will be effective enough, we don’t know.”
Ordinary citizens like Li are starting to take notice of their situation, and though extreme cases of environmental action like his are rare in the People’s Republic, activism itself is not. Haddad said, “There is a lot of [environmental] activism, but it takes a relatively particular form.”
From large groups down to individuals like Li, environmental activists in China have increasingly made their presence known. NGOs that work within existing political channels doing research and producing policy recommendations have seen major success, and some groups have even worked alongside government agencies in the field to protect ecosystems. Environmental education programs have helped to inform people about living more sustainably.
Artists, too, have made their marks. From provocative documentaries to sustainability-themed sculptures and even catchy songs, environment-oriented art has become a powerful part of the public eye.
Last month, students at Peking University covered the faces of statues on campus with facemasks in response to high smog levels. The stunt made major waves on social media platforms, which, in addition to demonstrations, have proven to be powerful tools for environmental action. “If enough people write in about it, the Chinese government is watching what’s going on,” Haddad said. “So social media activism can sometimes actually lead to change in terms of problematic things getting shut down.”
Despite the scope of the problem and the attention advocacy groups and individuals have drawn to the environmental situation, not everyone in China is quite on board. According to Haddad, “One of the key struggles for environmental activism in China is there’s a little bit of a sense of resignation about the thing.”
While people on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum—those wealthy enough to travel and see how much cleaner other places are, and those (usually poorer) citizens who can see direct impacts of pollutants on their health—are becoming aware of the issues, many people in the middle lack either education on the matter, the willingness to care, or both, according to Haddad. For many in China, “Development’s been so fast that they remember what it’s like to be poor, and that was bad,” she said. For them, pollution is seen as an unpleasant yet bearable side effect, and “most people are just trying to get through the day.”
As the levels of environmental action vary in the public realm, the views of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) on activism itself remain complicated. On the one hand, the Chinese government recognizes the social and economic strains that environmental issues are putting on the country. Premier Li Keqiang told the National People’s Congress in March, “Fostering a sound ecological environment is vital for people’s lives and the future of our nation,” and the government has recently announced its intention to “declare war” on pollution. With this in mind, environmental activism can sometimes serve the interests of the CPC.
The government does, however, remain wary of activism. Discussing environmental issues via social media and working with the government are fine in the eyes of the CPC, but demonstrating on a large scale is not, according to Haddad. One study published by Harvard researchers indicates that, while the Chinese government often permits complaining about issues on the surface, it censors citizens once they start using online communication to incite collective action. This may be especially true in terms of environmental activism because, according to Haddad’s research, pro-environmental groups in East Asia have historically been linked with democracy movements, and the CPC has taken notice.
“If people are organizing physically to talk about the environment, it’s too easy to shift focus and talk about something else that [the government doesn’t] want them to talk about,” she explained. Environmental activists in China have thus been forced to ensure that their rhetoric remains environmental and not political, or they may risk being shut down.
Censored or not, environmental activists play an important role in fighting environmental degradation in China. With reports released in late March by the World Health Organization that air pollution has become the greatest environmental health risk in the world, their work becomes all the more important. In terms of China’s future, “I’m hopeful, but not naive,” Haddad said. “The prognosis right now is very uncertain whether or not [the Chinese government] can get ahead of [the environmental problems] I like to hope that they will, and there are certainly things in the works that suggest that they are.”