Chapter 1 The Politics and Ethics of Going Green in China

Chapter in Brief
Supplementary Information
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Chapter in Brief

This chapter examines two cases of China’s progressive environmental policies undertaken or backed by the government. Based on interviews with local residents, local government officials, industry representatives, and researchers, the two case studies investigate the responses to and the motivations behind the new emphasis on the environment in Benxi City and the Sanjiang Plain to reveal the complexities of environmentalism in China today.

Industrial Pollution:
The Chinese government has made Benxi City in Lianoning Province, a heavily polluted city in the 1980s, a policy model for pollution reduction. Local officials successfully used the city’s “most polluted” label to attract international attention and increased state funding for cleanup projects.

Resource Use:
The Sanjiang Nature Reserve in Heilongjiang, China’s northeastern-most province, is an example of the government’s recent policies in the area of wetlands protection. The reserve, which started as a local initiative, attained national status in 2000, creating a conflict between environment and forestry bureaucrats at the provincial and central governments and local officials and residents primarily concerned about economic and political justice.

Despite growing public support for environmental protection among elites in China, government green initiatives provoked resentment among ordinary citizens in Benxi City and the Sanjiang Plain. In Benxi, public opinion was divided and reflected a deepening gap between the rich and the poor—the growing number of residents struggling to cope with a transitional market economy showed cynicism and contempt for the environmental measures, and the population was divided. Resentment against new environmental measures was even greater in the Sanjiang Plain, where local farmers and immigrants in particular view wetland protection rules as a threat to their livelihood.

Both cases show the limits of environmentalism in China, where decision-making remains a top-down process. At the same time, since the early 1980s, political decentralization has allowed for greater participation of local government. In Benxi City, local officials successfully lobbied the central government for additional funding for environmental and related economic projects. In Sanjiang, on the other hand, the upgrade of the wetlands to a National Reserve failed to bring in additional funds and resulted in bureaucratic competition between local and government actors. In addition, many local officials saw the state’s stringent wetland protection laws as an impediment to economic development.

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Supplementary Information

NOTE: Unless otherwise indicated, the following notes and suggested resources were supplied by the chapter authors or the editor.


Coal Use

Benxi’s poor air quality is largely the result of the burning of coal, China’s major energy source. China consumes more coal than any other country in the world, and much of it is burned inefficiently and with little or no pollution control equipment. China's consumption of dirty coal dropped dramatically in the late 1990s due to a number of factors, including the closing of small coal mines, economic system reforms and the use of higher quality coal. Also, urban dwellers have been switching to gas and electricity for cooking and heating, and the use of central heating is increasing. Still, China remains dependent upon coal for 75% of its energy use.

  • To access an extensive collection of documents on energy efficiency in China, visit the site China E-News: Energy, Environment, Economy maintained by the Advanced International Studies Unit (AISU), an international energy and environmental problem solver.
  • For a detailed paper on the coal industry in China, complete with data and tables of resources, output, accident rates, consumption, export volumes, emissions, see Wang Qingyi, "Coal Industry in China: Evolvement and Prospect," 1999.
  • For more on the decline in China’s coal consumption in the late 1990s, see Jonathan Sinton and David Fridley, "Hot Air and Cold Water: The Unexpected Fall in China's Energy Use," China Environment Series 4, 2001. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
  • This article discusses the jump in coal consumption in China in the early 2000s, and China’s energy prospects for the future. Keith Bradsher “China’s Boom Adds to Global Warming Problem” The New York Times, October 22, 2003.

Environmental Management

  • Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black, Cornell University Press, 2004. A very lucid and engaging explanation of environmental policy making in China, with special attention to the role of citizen actors now and in the future.
  • For an analysis of the economic, political and institutional factors influencing air pollution management in China based on a five-city case study (including Benxi), see G. Sun and H.K. Florig, “Determinants of Air Pollution Management in Urban China,” in E. Melanie DuPuis, ed., Smoke and Mirrors: The Politics and Culture of Air Pollution, NYU Press, 2004.
  • Xiaoying Ma and Leonard Ortolando, Environmental Regulation in China. Lanham. MD and Oxford: Rowmand & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. A study of policy implementation, this book examines the causes of common shortcomings in pollution control in China, despite the existence of comprehensive laws and regulations.
  • For an assessment of the extent of environmental degradation in China by the early 1990s and an analysis of Chinese environmental policy in the context of central planning, see Richard Lotspeich and Aimin Chen, “Environmental Protection in the People’s Republic of China,” Journal of Contemporary China 6.14. (1997): 33-59.

Benxi's Environmental Hotline

  • For an assessment of the role of citizens’ complaints in China’s pollution control system, see Susmita Dasgupta and David Wheeler “Citizen Complaints as Environmental Indicators: Evidence from China.” Sinosphere, Fall 2000, 23-34.
  • These statistics provided by the Benxi Environmental Protection Bureau show the number and types of environmental complaints made by the public and the public representatives at the Municipal Public Conference and the Municipal People's Political Conference in Benxi in the period 1980-2001.

Benxi's Unemployment Problem

In its heyday during the Mao period, Benxi was a booming industrial city and the center of steel production. With China’s new economy, however, the city has seen a number of its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) shut down, resulting in vast numbers of unemployed workers in the city, a source of social unrest in recent years. The true rate of unemployment is difficult to verify, and Benxi’s local statistical yearbook is silent on the issue.

  • According to William Hurst, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, who has conducted extensive fieldwork on Benxi:
    • The government uses several figures: one that counts only ‘registered unemployed’ (five percent) and several types of more inclusive statistics. Probably the best estimate one can draw of the true rate of unemployment in Benxi is to compare the number of workers employed in the city around the beginning of the period in which most job losses took place, with the number of workers actually “on post” (
    zai gang) in a recent year. In 1994, there were 612,000 workers in Benxi city. In 2000, only 287,000 workers were “on post” there. This means that a total of roughly 325,000 jobs have been lost and not replaced. Thus, somewhere around fifty-three percent of Benxi’s workforce is likely unemployed, according to official statistics—“Liaoning Tongji Nianjian” Beijing: Tongji Chubanshe, 1995, 2001.

    Almost the same figure is reached if one takes the simple ratio of workers listed as “not on post” (bu zai gang)—i.e. workers still associated with their original factories, but reported and registered as being out of work through one of a number of mechanisms (this figure probably captures at least half, but certainly not 100% of all the workers actually unemployed in Benxi)—to workers listed as “on post” in 2000; alternatively, one could say that thirty-five percent of the total number of Benxi workers not yet retired were listed as “not on post” in 2000. Complicating any attempt at making such estimates is that officials often do not report consistent indicators from one year to the next, and therefore clear or reliable unemployment figures simply do not exist.

(Source: William Hurst, e-mail correspondence, 9 December 2003.)

For more on why calculating any precise rate of unemployment in a Chinese city is difficult, see: Dorothy J. Solinger “Why We Cannot Count the ‘Unemployed,’” China Quarterly, 16 September 2001, 671–688. For an excellent analysis of unemployment in the context of market reform in China, and the reasons why current policy measures to alleviate it are ineffective, see Dorothy J. Solinger, "Labor Market Reform and the Plight of the Laid-off Proletariat," China Quarterly 170 (2002): 304-326.

Pollution Levy System

The Chinese pollution levy system, a method for charging polluters for emissions, was adopted in 1979 and officially incorporated into law in the early 1980s. A nationwide policy for air pollution levies issued by China's State Council came into effect in 1982. Almost all cities in China now use this economic instrument.
  • For an investigation of two aspects of China’s pollution levy system – 1) the differences in enforcement of the pollution levy across urban areas and 2) the impact of pollution charges on industry's environmental performance in different areas—see Hua Wang and David Wheeler, Development Research Group, World Bank, "Endogenous Enforcement and Effectiveness of China's Pollution Levy System." Download (PDF, 28 pages).

Agenda 21

Agenda 21, a UN program on the environment and sustainable development, was adopted by 179 nations at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. China's Agenda 21 office was formed the same year to implement China's commitments under Agenda 21. Two years later, in 1994, Benxi established its own Agenda 21 office, the Benxi Agenda 21 Administrative Center, to promote its sustainable development strategy. Benxi’s Agenda 21 has focused principally on cleaner production.

For more information on the implementation of Agenda 21 in Benxi and its experimentation with cleaner production, see:

Sanjiang Nature Reserve

Ramsar Convention

In 1992, the Sanjiang Nature Reserve was selected by the Contracting Parties for designation according to the Criteria for the Identification of Wetlands of International Importance.

  • For more information about the Ramsar site selection criteria and the overall objectives of the treaty click here.
  • Search the Ramsar sites database for additional information on the Sanjiang reserve and other wetlands of international importance.

Wildlife Conservation in Sanjiang

  • For a summary of the current status of birds and habitats and a list of conservation issues in Sanjiang see BirdLife International’s report “Amur, Ussuri, and Sungari River Basins." Download (PDF, 6 pages).
  • To find out more about early Western involvement in conservation projects in China, see George B. Schaller, The Last Panda. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987.


Rising Environmental Awareness and Citizen Action in China

Environmental citizen organizations are not active either in Benxi or in Sanjiang Plain. Yet observers have noted growing environmental awareness in other parts of China, marked by the birth of new citizen environmental organizations and protests.

  • For an excellent analysis of the factors contributing to the rise of environmental NGOs in China since the mid 1990s, see Guobin Yang, “Environmental NGOs and Institutional Dynamics in China” The China Quarterly. (2005): 46-66. Download (PDF, 21 pages)
  • Public riots over the authorities’ failure to respond to environmental grievances are becoming increasingly prevalent in rural China. For a recent account of the mass protests against a pharmaceutical plant in the village of Xinchang, near Shanghai, see Howard W. French, “Anger in China Raises Over Threat to Environment” The New York Times. July 19, 2005.
  • For a survey of university students’ perceptions of China’s environment and development issues, see Koon-Kwai Wong, “The Environmental Awareness of University Students in Beijing, China” Journal of Contemporary China. 12. 36 (2003): 519-536.
  • For a discussion of the role of environmental NGOs in building a civil society in China, see Caroline Cooper, “Quietly Sowing the Seeds of Activism” Far Eastern Economic Review. April 10, 2003: 28-31.
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Related Links

China's Agenda 21
China’s Agenda 21 Office provides access to project descriptions, reports and other documents related to the implementation of Agenda 21, the UN’s program on the environment and sustainable development, in China.

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, signed in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty on cooperation and national action on the preservation of wetlands. Visit their site for access to key documents, including the Ramsar Strategic Plan 2003–2008, the directory of “Wetlands of International Importance,” explanations of selection criteria, and much more.

Wetlands International, China
Helpful site providing recent news and links to documents on wetlands preservation projects in China.

BirdLife International
BirdLife International is a global alliance of conservation organizations dedicated to the protection of threatened bird species and habitats and to the “integration of bird conservation needs into wider natural resources management for the benefit of both birds and people.” See in particular the section on Saving Asia’s Threatened Birds. Notably, BirdLife lists the Sanjiang Plain as one of the twenty key wetland regions for threatened birds in Asia.

China Environment Forum
The China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars encourages dialogue among US and Chinese scholars, policymakers and NGOs on environmental and energy challenges in China. The Forum publishes the China Environment Series, which can be downloaded for free.

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