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Growing People Power – Netizens are changing China for the better

When I first arrived in China in 2007, the attitude of many of my Chinese friends was that the system was broken, but there was absolutely nothing they could do to fix it. I clearly remember chatting with a professor in Longzhou. He said, “They talk a lot about a ‘harmonious society’ but what the hell does that mean? The price of everything is going up and things are getting worse. I don’t care about ‘harmony’ I care about actually having a good life.”

At that time I was surprised to hear people openly complain about their situation, and was bothered by their sense of hopelessness. Now though people are far more willing to vent their frustration, not only with foreigners (who are seen as a safe choice for venting), but also online.

Initially I was skeptical that anything would change as a result of messages on Weibo. Four years later, I am continually surprised at what can be accomplished by netizens.

This of course is not to say that China has been democratized, stories are still scrubbed from the forums, and many movements are deemed a threat to social harmony. However, I believe that we are seeing the next step being taken in public participation of government decisions.

The most recent example of this started back in the first week of October, when Beijing was draped in a smog that friends on Twitter described as “apocalyptic”.  When a foreign doctor commented on the health risks associated with such pollution, Global Times responded by saying it wasn’t that bad (read more in my post: An incredible lack of integrity). In short their argument was that the time was not yet right for Beijing to measure PM2.5, which are more harmful particles than what had been previously measured.

After a sustained campaign by citizens, roughly one month later, Beijing has acceded to higher air quality standards, and even The People’s Daily has taken a very different tune.

“The country now only reports air quality based on readings of PM10, particulate matter smaller than 10 microns, which is why monitoring results do not match people’s sense of pollution.

Zhang Lijun, vice-minister of environmental protection, said that Chinese cities are facing severe air pollution.”

In the last few months we have seen several effective environmental protests that have led to meaningful results, most of which started online. It is wonderful to see Chinese standing up to polluting factories, and that local governments are now being pushed to heed their demands is the result of an increased focus on the environment that started in the Central Government.

Once netizens get the taste for flesh and blood activism, we could see movements call for something more daring than the shuttering of dangerous polluters, perhaps something like freeing a blind lawyer and his family in Shandong province.

For more on China’s Environment I strongly recommend Jonathan Watts’ book, “When A Billion Chinese Jump,” you can read my review here

The Paradox of Development

It’s no secret that China has environmental problems (my other posts about China’s environment), today even the Environment Minister acknowledged that “In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today.”

Also on Sunday Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said in an online chat, “We must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless roll-outs, as that would result in unsustainable growth featuring industrial overcapacity and intensive resource consumption.” He is saying this partially in light of the recent news that up to 10% of China’s rice is contaminated by heavy metals, and Beijing’s air pollution was 10x higher last week than the WHO recognizes as “safe.”

Like I’ve said before, the national government, in many cases, understands these bigger issues, but the gov’t system at local levels prevents action because only GDP matters when promotion time comes.

This underlies what seems to be the great paradox of development; that poor people should live a life with the basic necessities, but that furnishing those necessities could lead to irreversible environmental effects, which in turn would destroy their quality of life.

Example 1: a village cuts down the nearby trees to build their homes (+), then the rains come and cause a land slide that wipes out the villagers’ homes (-).

Example 2: a factory is built that provides jobs to the locals (+), but its waste poisons their children (-).

In China I work for a charity organization that focuses on sustainable rural development. This means that our projects our intended to improve their quality of life without pulling more resources from China’s overtaxed lands.

One of the projects that I find particularly exciting is the installation of bio-gas pools and stoves. These systems collect human and animal waste and then harvest the methane released as it breaks down to fuel their stoves and heat their homes. This simple technology not only removes the need to cut down the trees, but saves the family the time/effort/money of getting the wood.

Labor saving technologies like this and solar stoves help families focus less on survival and more on building a small business that would let them escape poverty.

The other project I want to mention was started by a Chinese church in Henan province. The church has organized dozens of workshops for local farmers training them to raise more profitable crops. They have developed these methods through trial and error on their own land that is cultivated by volunteers.

Again, this allows a family to work the same number of hours, but reap a greater reward.

So my hope is that in this next year China is genuine in its efforts to build an economy that not only pulls its people out of desperate poverty, but is mindful of the paradox of development that threatens to destroy what they have created.