Environmental Crisis, Social Movements, and Nascent Democratization in China

The OU Institute for US-China Affairs hosted Liu Jianqiang, a Chinese investigative reporter and environmentalist to give a talk on how China’s worsening environmental crisis is catalyzing social movements. He began by giving a brief history of environmental issues that sparked public outcry, beginning with the Three Gorges Dam project that displaced over a million Chinese villagers. He recounted other environmental crises that sparked public protest, and as time went on, the government became more responsive to the people’s requests. He referred to 2012 as the year of dramas and showed pictures of environmental protests that occurred all over China–I had no idea that so many public demonstrations occurred in China’s recent history and are continuing to occur as the environmental crisis worsens. He said that most cases of public disorder have been tied to pollution issues for three reasons.

  1. Pollution is intolerable
  2. Environmental rights are apolitical (or at least seem that way)
  3. Environmental issues have a wider impact; there is safety in numbers

Ultimately, he argued that although citizens and journalist did not set out to turn their environmental efforts into a democratic movement, they have effectively established a relatively democratic sphere in the green movement.

Liu Jianqiang’s talk got me interested China’s environmental crisis, so in my Chinese capstone class, I decided to research the issue of cancer villages in China, villages where the rate of cancer is significantly higher due to economic over-development and industrial pollution. As with many environmental issues in China, I realized that the first step for the government to solve an environmental problem is to address the problem. But in most cases, the government censors “sensitive” content such as environmental issues, because they put pressure on the government, and as Liu proved, often are charged with democratic sentiment. Although the Chinese government is gradually beginning to respond more to environmental protests, hey are still more focused on economic development. So at present, such environmental issues are swept under the rug.

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