China has become notorious for its heavy pollution, the result of rapid industrial growth and a growing population. And now, Chinese citizens are starting to get angry; up to 50,000 “mass incidents” of protest about pollution are being documented annually, while party leaders promised just this week to take action on the pollution problem. In a country where civil unrest is already a documented issue, the increased agitation around environmental causes is another indicator that the population is growing less tolerant of the status quo.
China’s air, water and soil are laden with pollutants, leading to widespread environmental health problems. So-called “cancer villages” dot the landscape, while smog in large cities like Beijing can be so bad that it’s visible from space. Many waterways are heavily polluted, making it difficult for people to access safe drinking water, thanks to industrial and agricultural dumping; just this week, 3,200 dead pigs were found clogging a waterway that’s known for carrying a constant eau de deceased porcine as it is.
The nation’s residents are beginning to realize the ramifications of these living conditions, and they’re fighting back. Civil unrest has led to the cancellation or radical redesign of a number of industrial products, thanks to protesters refusing to back down in the face of pressure. Both Qidong and Ningbo, for example, were forced to scrap plans for new industrial projects recently because their residents steadfastly opposed them, and they’re not the only cities to have done so.
Part of this is thanks to the facilitation of organizing across social networks and other media. Using services like Weibo, Chinese activists can quickly talk to each other, organize events, pass information on and even distribute material that the government is attempting to suppress, sometimes in the form of coded videos and writings that appear to be about lighthearted subjects, but are actually sharp indictments of political issues.
Jin Zhengmin, a former party official, took advantage of these very networks to protest the state of pollution in China after the death of his sister. He challenged environmental protection officers to take a dunk in a heavily polluted river that he remembered swimming in as a child when it was clear and safe. Needless to say, no one took him up on the offer, but his high-profile comments on the environment illustrated the depth of frustration with environmental conditions in China, and galvanized activists looking for ways to speak out.
China continues to rely heavily on coal power, which contributes a huge volume to the nation’s overall air pollution. Sulfur dioxide and other byproducts of combustion and industrial processes are also released freely into the atmosphere, while toxins enter waterways through manufacturing and processing of materials like electronic waste. Since pollution knows no borders, this is a problem not just for China but also neighboring nations and the planet as a whole, illustrating the critical need for cooperative approaches to climate change and environmental problems.
The nation faces an uphill battle to clean up its environment and address the growing anger among citizens who feel their concerns are not being heard, and who want to preserve the environment for future generations. Many are skeptical of the claims made by party officials this week that the environment will become a higher priority, and they’re joined by environmental advocacy organizations from outside China as well.
Can China balance its desire for expansion with the need to protect the environment and its people?
Photo credit: Bryan T.