There has long been an assumption that, somehow, China will muddle through: that these are serious, slow-boil issues, but never the country's most urgent. The attitude of China's government has historically been that the country should first get rich, and then clean up its environment (the key variable by which local officials are evaluated for promotion remains GDP growth). Or that somehow, technology will come through in time -- to squeeze more water out of dry land, or to bury carbon in the ground instead of releasing it into the sky.
Ma Jun -- author of China's Water Crisis, 2012 Goldman International Environmental Prize recipient, and one of the country's most prominent green activists -- says that many problems in China persist or worsen "not because of lack of technology, but lack of motivation."China has at its disposal tools and strategies it could deploy to move more quickly toward solutions, but without a free press, independent court system, and vibrant civil society to force change, it often seems more convenient to bury bad news than to respond to it, he says, especially for officials far from Beijing. Or to purchase water-treatment or smokestack-cleaning equipment, but then trim electricity costs by rarely turning them on.
But in recent years, we've seen a new dynamic: people in China's wealthiest cities are no longer willing to cut corners, or to wait and see. Armed with smartphones, social media and more access to information, they are increasingly willing to take to the streets, in prosperous cities like Ningbo, Dalian, and Xiamen to oppose the government's secrecy in approving projects and to call for chemical plants -- which they believe may lead to harmful health impacts -- to be shuttered. In just a year, the number of major environmental protests jumped 120 percent, according to Yang Chaofei, vice-chairman of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences.
The recent protests reveal not only concern about environment, but also fraying trust for officialdom. Even after the government of Ningbo pledged last month to stop the expansion of a PX plant, one 30-year-old protestor told me: "We don't know if the chemical plant really will be cancelled. Most of us think our city governors are just politicians and liars.... There are still some projects being carried out that will also pollute the soil we live on, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. We'll still keep our eyes on them." He added: "The environment is a reflection of the political issue."
At an event on the sidelines of the 18th Party Congress, Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian told reporters that new bids for large industrial projects must now include assessments of their potential impact on "social stability." It seems Beijing is finally hearing that message -- that environmental damage can cause political fallout.