Chinese state and citizens must battle airpocalypse together

Visibility is slightly better than last week. EPA/Adrian Bradshaw

Pollution has gotten so bad in China that Prime Minister Li Keqiang opened the annual meeting of parliament on Wednesday declaring a “war against pollution”. This followed the surge in smog over Chinese cities in recent weeks.

Thick smog blanketed northern China for seven days straight, with pollution indexes at hazardous levels. Citizens have a key role to play in holding their government accountable to its promises to end the airpocalypse and they are increasingly taking action.

Suing for damages

During the latest coverage, a resident of the northern industrial city of Shijiazhuang, Li Guixin, attempted to sue his local municipal government over the high levels of air pollution. This is not the first time a Chinese citizen has done this – it has happened with water pollution from industry before – but it is the first time the finger has been pointed at local government for failing to curb smog, and so close to Beijing. Without doubt, one of the reasons his efforts have made the international news is his proximity to the capital and the timing of his complaints overlapped with a week of intense smog in Beijing itself.

Interestingly, he demanded 10,000 yuan (about £1,000) in compensation – for what he spent on face masks, an air purifier and a treadmill to exercise indoors. But he explained that his real aim is to raise awareness and let citizens see they are the victims of pollution, whereas local governments who receive corporate taxes are the beneficiaries. This is a pressing point about the uneven spread of costs and benefits in China.

Unequal effects

Hours after news of the lawsuit was published, China’s president Xi Jinping visited central Beijing without any protection from the bad air – an act many viewed as an attempt to downplay the severity of pollution. The Beijing city government shared a widely circulated post: “breathe the same air and share the same fate” on their microblog. But people as a whole have not been too convinced.

Key government buildings are fitted with air purifiers and those who can afford them, buy purifiers for their homes. At a cost of US$3,000, however, many cannot afford these expensive items. Another strategy is to escape, moving home or buying a second house in the countryside. Again not everyone can afford to do this.

Just as the wealthy move away from pollution, pollution increasingly moves into poorer areas, into China’s interior. Pollution then becomes more and more closely mapped onto social inequalities and it makes them worse: the poor are often more exposed to environmental risks and yet unable to pay to prevent or treat illnesses associated with these risks. Plus, the health effects of pollution are becoming increasingly apparent.

With reason to believe that illnesses and premature death may have been caused by pollution, many citizens have started to ask: “Why should we suffer for this? Who is benefiting? Can’t there be an alternative?”

Conscious of their concerns, the Chinese government has encouraged some public participation in measuring the impact of pollution. New rules state that official data on polluters should be made public. Enterprises including some big state owned enterprises are required to publish in real time details of air pollution, waste water and heavy metal discharges. But this only really happens if there is pressure from citizens to do so and more must be done.

Citizen efforts

Citizens are increasingly raising the alarm. Lawsuits such as Li Guixin’s are one, but by no means the only, avenue. Local NGOs play an important role, but they are not present everywhere. Resort to official and social media is another way to gain attention.

Citizens file petitions, negotiate with firms and sometimes take to the streets. Protests (normally peaceful) in recent years in Ningbo, Xiamen, Dalian and Shanghai among other cities are all examples of this. Protestors are often tech savvy, sharing information via mobile and microblogs like weibo and we-chat about pollution, its effects and local government collusion with industry.

Efforts to gather data on air pollution is part of a wider trend that may be called “citizen science”. That is, attempts by citizens to collate their own scientific evidence of pollution’s severity and to lobby industries and local governments with this data, to demand a cleaner environment. Examples in relation to air pollution include grassroots NGOs like Green Beagle and Nature University, which provided portable handheld detectors for citizens to measure air quality, or Float Beijing, which used small pollution monitors fixed on kites.

Many of these are efforts by urban middle classes, but it does not mean that villagers are putting up with pollution in silence. The difference is that their complaints are more likely to remain invisible. This could be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it means that much local discontent remains just that, local discontent. On the other hand, it means that citizens’ anxieties over pollution are much broader and deeper than current reporting might suggest.

Learning to live with it

At the same time, we must remember that people often have intricate relationships to pollution and their reactions to the situation are complex. In my work I have outlined a depressing scenario in which citizens learn to live with pollution and come to regard it as inevitable. Instead of fighting it, they adjust their parameters for a good life to include pollution and even come to doubt their abilities to prove that they suffer from its effects.

As development pushes further and deeper into China’s interior, the anxieties of poorer, more rural citizens will likely only increase. Unless development is done sustainably, it is bound to cause problems further down the line – not only environmentally but also in terms of social stability. Li Guixin’s lawsuit is just one example of this.

In both cities and the countryside, China is better off with citizens who feel they can play an active role in raising the alarm against pollution, confident that they will not lose out economically if they do so. Industry needs to conform to standards set by the government and ultimately, citizens will need government help to make this happen.