At a recent environmental forum in Beijing, the speakers were in full swing with relatively predictable insight into China’s environmental challenges, and more broadly, environmental challenges elsewhere.
Then came the question-and-answer period and again a couple of relatively innocuous questions before a Chinese man strode to the front of the auditorium and launched into a discussion of his own.
In angry tones and raised voice, he said the Chinese government was not doing enough to mitigate air, water and soil pollution and demanded immediate attention to related public health concerns.
No one flinched, people listened intently, respectfully, no one emerged from the shadows to haul him away. Several students in the audience also asked about lack of action on pollution and suggested that more should be done to clean the environment and protect citizen health.
I sat beside a Chinese friend who simply shrugged, saying she had seen the man speak out at two other recent environmental forums. She said that because of his stature as an energy expert, he was left unhindered to express his opinions publicly.
She pointed out that the students were also feeling free to criticize the government, whereas previously the unspoken line everyone knew not to cross was any sense of direct opposition to Beijing authorities.
My sense from the entire trip (my previous visit being only four months earlier) was that China is changing, and perhaps faster than we could have imagined.
For the first time, censors this year have allowed Chinese media to carry reports about the “cancer villages” in areas of high industrial pollution.
Environmental advocate Ma Jun told me with some amazement that he had felt free recently to criticize a recent Ministry of Environmental Protection decision not to release data about soil pollution, which it considered a “state secret”.
Ma Jun said this was irresponsible and put public health at risk, a comment that was unusually picked up by the People’s Daily and Xinhua, among other news sources that aren’t usually inclined to publish remarks critical of the government.
“Previously, these comments would have been removed by censors,” Ma Jun said. “Now these issues are allowed to be talked about, debated and discussed.”
This became particularly clear, as March brought the annual meetings of the legislative and consultative bodies of China where major policies traditionally are decided and key government officials appointed.
Concern for the environment was a constant throughout the session – and was the subject of one in ten of the 5,000 proposals submitted by delegates.
Social media was also alive with commentary on the environment throughout.
And talk about environmental protection wasn’t simply a side act to the main show. The National People’s Congress (NPC) at 2,987 members is the largest parliament in the world and gathers alongside the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) whose members represent various groups of society. This year, the NPC confirmed the new leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
This once-in-a-decade leadership change emerged from November’s Communist Party congress with a strong reform mandate and promising a more sustainable China, balanced growth as well as more emphasis on environmental protection.
To be fair, this was not, however entirely a departure in direction from the previous Hu Jintao, Wen Jibao administration and it remains to be seen whether the result will be real change.
The 2011, 12th Five-Year Plan, which sets the direction for policy, of course emphasized balanced growth and set priority green industries. The mantra that emerged then was that economic growth should not come at the expense of resource depletion or pollution.
Wen Jibao, representing the departing Old Guard, opened the 12th National People’s Congress with a “Report of the Work of the Government” pointing to “steady progress in conserving energy, reducing emissions, and protecting the environment.”
But levels of anger are rising, fueled by recent truly off-the-charts air pollution in Beijing as well as the repeated and increasingly public (because of the rapid spread of news on social media platforms) water pollution incidents nationwide. Rampant corruption among local officials that has allowed harmful practices to continue unhindered has also been a target of microbloggers.
This sense of disregard for public health coupled with an increasingly affluent and vocal middle class presents a problem for the Chinese government in terms of its own legitimacy.
Recognizing this, Xi Jinping said at the March proceedings that the government should play a stronger role in pushing reform and opening up.
“The new administration wants a new start,” Ma Jun said. “They want to make clear that the current environmental challenges are not their fault.”
- China delegates in pollution protest vote (abc.net.au)
- China’s Poison Air Is Becoming Its Leading Export – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- As Pollution Worsens in China, Solutions Succumb to Infighting (wtee.wordpress.com)
- China People’s Congress environment surprise (abc.net.au)
- Anger Over Pollution Becomes Main Cause of China Unrest (bloomberg.com)