President Xi Jinping announced an aggressive environmental agenda at the Communist Party Congress last month.

President Xi Jinping announced an aggressive environmental agenda at the Communist Party Congress last month. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

As It Looks to Go Green, China Keeps a Tight Lid on Dissent

Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to clean up the nation’s air and water and create an “ecological civilization.” Yet even as it carries out major environmental reforms, China’s government is making sure activist green movements stay under its control.

China’s “chairman of everything,” Xi Jinping, has just solidified as much power as any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, with his ideas for a “new era” for his nation enshrined in the constitution at last month’s 19th Communist Party Congress.

Among his new priorities are the creation of an “ecological civilization,” with Xi pledging to clean up three decades of environmental degradation, protect the country’s ecosystems, stringently enforce environmental laws and regulations, and create a “green economy.” Xi also has pledged to forge ahead with the country’s commitments under the Paris climate agreement, as China’s once-soaring CO2 emissions have finally plateaued in the past several years. And the Xi administration is expected to launch a national carbon trading system next month, creating the largest such regime in the world.

But as Xi — responding to years of growing public outrage and activism over the country’s egregious air, water, and soil pollution — casts himself as the nation’s chief protector of the environment, he and his administration have made it clear that the nation’s environmental problems will be tackled on the government’s terms and timetable. Given the Chinese leadership’s overriding concern about societal stability, the Xi administration has not hesitated to clamp down when it perceives that an environmental campaign is gaining broad popular support and taking on a life of its own. Nor has it been shy about appropriating environmental causes championed by the country’s NGOs and green activists.

That heavy-handed response to burgeoning green movements was on display earlier this year with the release of the film, “Plastic China,” which took a hard look at the dirty business of recycling imported plastic, including an image of a baby being born on a mound of trash. The documentary, directed by filmmaker Wang Jiuliang, went viral in early 2017, but the government soon blocked it on the Internet. The film may have helped prompt the government to speed up plans to ban imports on many categories of foreign waste, although the central government has never acknowledged why it decided to enact the ban so quickly last July.

Beijing has made it clear that the nation’s environmental problems will be tackled on the government’s terms and timetable.

The swift reaction to “Plastic China” echoed the response to journalist Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome,” a vivid account of the toll of air pollution on China’s citizens. That video went viral and was viewed an estimated 150 million to 300 million times within the first three days of its release. Its soaring popularity — an implicit rebuke to local and central government officials who had failed to crack down on polluters — occurred just before the annual National People’s Congress meetings in Beijing in 2015. Authorities quickly blocked the film on the Chinese Internet. Nevertheless, the government is moving aggressively to reduce air pollution in Beijing and other cities.

Pollution of the soil from noxious factories has also become a significant concern over the past several years, but the government has yet to release the results of tests it has performed on the nation’s tainted soils. Last year, a scandal erupted when 500 students from an elite high school near Shanghai were afflicted with numerous ailments caused by pollution and illegal dumping from three nearby pesticide factories. But news of that situation has largely disappeared from public view.

Environmental concerns are one of the leading causes of protests in China as citizens take to the Internet or the streets to vent their anger and frustration over runaway pollution and a lack of transparency on environmental issues. Roughly five years ago, grassroots protests sprung up throughout China as residents of so-called “cancer villages” — locales near chemical plants and factories whose residents suffer from high incidences of cancer — took to the streets. But fewer environmental protests take place in China today, and those that do occur — such as a demonstration in late 2016 protesting severe air pollution in the industrial city of Chengdu — are often quickly broken up by police.

Many of the anti-pollution policies the leadership in Beijing has rolled out in recent years have been at least partly aimed at heading off social instability by giving citizens a sense that leaders are going in the right direction, thus letting the air out of potentially explosive public outbursts.

Protestors in Beijing following the release of the viral documentary about Chinese air pollution "Under the Dome" in 2015.

Protestors in Beijing following the release of the viral documentary about Chinese air pollution "Under the Dome" in 2015. Source

“I think it follows a familiar pattern,” said Calvin Quek, the head of Sustainable Finance for Greenpeace East Asia. “The government reads the tea leaves, monitoring social networks like Weibo and WeChat, and when something really blows up, they acknowledge it, but they never want any independent sources of momentum. They are basically saying, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll take care of it now, we’re in charge of it.’ They have become very smart about getting information and controlling the narrative. They’ve been able to say, ‘We want to be final arbitrators of the public discussion.’ And I think the public is fine with it.”

Daniel Gardner, a professor at Smith College and author of Environmental Pollution in China: What Everyone Needs to Know — soon to be published by Oxford University Press — says that vested economic and political interests have long been concerned over grassroots environmental phenomena. This was evident in the crackdown on “Plastic China” and, especially, “Under the Dome,” which pointed to official corruption and collusion with fossil fuel companies as root causes of the air pollution problem.

“While Beijing may tolerate the common street protests of 100, 2,000, even 10,000 people, largely because they are of a familiar NIMBY-style and take as their targets local industry and local government, the specter of 200 million people from all around the country tuning in to ‘Under the Dome,’ and perhaps realizing they have common cause for building a national movement, was too unsettling,” Gardner said in an interview.

Ma Jun, one of China’s best-known environmental figures and director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, which pushes for greater transparency of pollution data, said that in many ways, both documentaries “achieved their target” and “prepared the public to support some very tough policy choices” related to air pollution controls and bans on imports of trash and toxic materials for recycling.

“When [a campaign] moves beyond the environment, and becomes an event of its own, there are lines.”

But when these movements became phenomena in and of themselves, China’s leaders grew worried about their ability to control such movements, Ma said in an interview.

“These documentaries show the space is there for discussion, but they also show there are some lines here and there,” Ma said. “When it moves beyond the environment, and becomes an event of its own, there are lines.”

Numerous examples have arisen in recent years in which Xi Jinping’s administration has taken action on the heels of environmental campaigns by activists and NGOs.

Earlier this year, China launched a major cleanup campaign along one of the sources of the Yellow River and ousted several local officials for their complicity in allowing a large open-pit coal mine to extensively damage a nature reserve. Yet it was Greenpeace China that first broke the news of this environmental scandal.

Also this year, the government imposed new rules on the use, transport, and storage of chemicals, a move that was seen, in part, as a response to a 2015 disaster in which improperly stored chemicals set off massive explosions in the port city of Tianjin that killed an estimated 170 people and injured hundreds more. The government attempted to censor reporting on the disaster in the news media and on Web sites such as Weibo, but word of the explosions nevertheless filtered out through social media.

Government moves to end the illegal importation of ivory into China only really took off after WildAid launched a campaign in 2013 using basketball star Yao Ming and other celebrities in ads. (The government has vowed to ban the ivory trade by the end of this year.) Other instances of crackdowns on the illegal trade in wildlife, such as pangolins, have been prompted in part by campaigns launched by stars like Jackie Chan.

Similarly, the air pollution crises in Beijing and other large cities in recent years have left the government scrambling to stay out in front on environmental issues after initially bungling its response. As recently as 2012, cities across China, particularly Beijing, were releasing inadequate air quality readings — basically saying a day was either good, bad, or moderately bad. The state-run press often referred to extreme air pollution as “bad fog.”

But with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing updating fine particulate matter readings hourly on Twitter, and Beijing residents living through a worsening series of “airpocalypses,” the central government was forced to shift into high gear. It soon began releasing accurate air pollution readings for major cities and pushed through a 10-point action plan to deal with airborne emissions, largely spurred by increasingly vocal protests online — and in the streets — over choking air pollution.

Today, the government, at least at the top levels, understands the pollution challenges and is actively communicating them. And it is trying to reach not only average Chinese citizens, but government officials, as well.

“The audience for [Xi’s ecological civilization] campaign is officials, in my view — officials in the central government who continue to hold a ‘pollute first, clean up later’ economic policy,” said Gardner. “And, critically, it’s to signal to local officials at all levels that the central government wants cooperation from them.”

Messages demonstrating the central government’s concern for the environment have figured prominently in propaganda efforts over the past several months, with a prime-time broadcast devoted to “ecological civilization” reforms airing in July. Xi’s administration also has pushed through a variety of other high-profile environmental reforms in recent years: commitments announced in July to block imports of a variety of solid waste, including consumer plastics; halting plans for hydropower facilities along the country’s last free-flowing major river, the Nujiang ( Salween); the creation of a national park system modeled on U.S. national parks; and a surge in new environmental laws, including an amended environmental protection law, an amended water pollution law, and the creation of the country’s first soil pollution law.

Add to all this a major push to develop renewable energy, deploy millions of electric vehicles, and reform energy markets, and Xi Jinping is increasingly looking, to many Chinese, like an environmental reformer.

The machinery of state censorship vigilantly restricts information on certain environmental issues.

Throughout, however, China’s government is carefully managing the debate. The machinery of state censorship, which actively monitors online discussion, vigilantly restricts information on certain environmental issues. The California-based Web site, China Digital Times, regularly publishes leaked directives from China’s state censors on issues such as deleting a report on air pollution deaths, quashing smog forecasts, and prohibiting reporting on lawsuits filed against provincial officials for failing to regulate pollution.

The government also is tightening restrictions on national and foreign NGO’s out of fear that their activities might foment environmental activism. These restrictions include the passage last year of a Charity Law overseeing domestic NGOs, as well as adoption of a foreign NGO law. Foreign NGOs have been hampered since the start of this year by requirements that they obtain institutional sponsors and register with public security authorities.

As a result, it’s difficult these days to get staff members at foreign NGOs to go on the record or talk without having quotes vetted by communications staff. The process of going through registration for the foreign NGO law “is making us more careful,” said a source at a prominent international NGO in Beijing.

“When you have to register, you’re going to think about how what you say is perceived” by authorities, said the source, who asked not to be identified. “They want to be in control of the message.”