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Choking on Smog, China’s Urban Dwellers Emerge in Protest

Wu Qiang, December 14, 2016

“They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog.”



Wearing masks, a group of artists and writers sat at Chunxi Road, Chengdu, on December 11.


For the last week, inland China has been enveloped in smog. Some cities issued emergency smog warnings; others cancelled outdoor activities at schools. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, the government banned gatherings in Tianfu Square (天府广场)— as though they were afraid of something. And just as expected, on the weekend, Chengdu residents came out in numbers on Chunxi road in the central business district and on Tianfu Square. Some sat down quietly wearing pollution masks, others held up banners of protest.

In the frigid winter night of a smog-enclosed 2016, the protest of Chengdu residents was like the flash of a shooting star.

These are the “smog politics” of contemporary China. The smog question has almost transformed the landscape of Chinese politics since February 2015, with the broadcast of the documentary “Under the Dome” (穹顶之下) by former CCTV journalist Chai Jing (柴静). The government has been busy: Under the aegis of unifying the Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei) conurbation, Beijing has embarked on a project of social engineering aimed at resolving the smog problem: heavily polluting industries in Hebei have been forced to lower output, stop production, or shutter; Beijing has embarked on a program of “low-end population congestion relief;” and villages on the outskirts of Beijing are in the midst of converting from coal-based to to natural gas energy for heating. Meanwhile, smog continues to enshroud China now and then, and saturating social media is the discontent of the Chinese middle-class, only interrupted from time to time by a variety of other politically-tinged incidents — the “poisoned running tracks,” “the Lei Yang incident,” the “Luo Er fundraising scandal,” and bullying at the Zhongguancun No. 2 Elementary School.

It is as though a new middle class, as full of uncertainty as it is of energy, is rapidly forming its own class politics in the shroud of China’s smog. There is, for instance, the movement to “make a fortune and get out as soon as possible,” referring to emigration. There are also large collectives of underground discontent who express themselves on social media. And then there are always the unexpected small-scale protest actions in the streets.


A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

Even as the authorities move to suppress human rights lawyers and emphasize once again political thought work in schools, a politically-awakened middle-class, oriented around the politics of pollution, is forming in a rapidly urbanizing China. With their own series of often indecisive demands and modes of expression, they’ve begun to displace the rights defense movement that came before, and their numbers are quietly growing.

For instance, on the evening of December 11 in Tianfu Square, the majority of those in the sit-in were local artists and culture workers — they’d either come of their own initiative, or were mobilized by emphatic protest slogans shared on social media in the last few days. The online posts advertising the protest seemed to be inspired by the confluence of art and politics over the last few years: the various artistic creations of Ai Weiwei (艾未未), for instance, or the protest performances of the Song Zhuang art circle (北京宋庄艺术圈子), or the anti-smog demonstrations during the Beijing Marathon. They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police to bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog. Local social media users on Monday even circulated an official notice that the wearing of masks is prohibited during school assembly, and that air purifiers were not going to be installed. It’s as though wearing a face mask is mobilizing for a color revolution.

The deep fearfulness of the regime makes clear the power of middle-class politics “under the dome”: they need barely to raise a crowd — simply holding a small-scale protest action, even when unlikely to have any real effect, makes the authorities extremely nervous, and they rally the troops like it was the eve of battle. The Pengzhou petrochemical project (彭州石化项目), close to Chengdu and most likely to have a deleterious impact on the environment, probably won’t be scrapped because of this. But leading officials in Sichuan and Chengdu know they don’t have the option of putting their feet up and blaming everything on the policies of those who came before. Quite the opposite: it’s likely that in the weeks and months ahead, they’ll be stewing over the protests, like they’re sitting on the mouth of a volcano. Perhaps this is precisely the homogenizing character of smog: concentrated in major cities, yet inescapable to all.



Students at Sichuan Fine Arts Academy put masks on stone lions on campus.


This is where smog politics differs from the NIMBY movement of the past few years. When the Pengzhou petrochemical plant got going, Chengdu didn’t erupt in mass protests like those against the paraxylene plant in Xiamen in 2013. That requires a small number of committed environmental activists coupled with widespread public engagement — but now the prophylactic and suppressive power of the security forces has grown so quickly, they’re able to shut such protests down.

Smog is different. Within just a few years, it’s turned all city dwellers into collective victims — and amplified the sense of frustration and grievance of those who are trying, and every day failing, to enter the middle class. The most aggrieved among them aren’t rights defenders that the authorities have already identified, ready to apprehend at a moment’s notice. Now, no matter how small the protest is — even if it’s just a selfie with a slogan written on paper — as soon as it happens, the homogenizing character of China’s pollution politics means that everyone soon hears about it, and it becomes a general protest.

All this means that everyone — not just those in North China, or denizens along the Yangtze river or coast, but the central and local governments too, and the state-backed “environmental experts” who were brought out to defend the Pengzhou petrochemical plant, as well as the nationalists like Zhou Xiaoping (周小平) — now finds themselves in an uncertain and unprecedented gambit. There’s no solution: only the arrival of a crisp northern gale, or a summer typhoon, is able to temporarily lift the stifling smog.

But these two natural forces are no help to those in the Chengdu basin. As long as the smog doesn’t clear, protests in Chengdu will continue to serve as a model specimen of China’s pollution politics, keeping the discussion alive among the urbanized middle class, fanning debate, and inviting citizens elsewhere to emulate. This will be a test of whether or not China has something like a “civil society,” and whether its middle class has political significance. Like France on the eve of 1789, any spontaneous protests by Chengdu citizens could turn into a movement demanding clean air. When that happens, the final stage of pollution politics will have arrived.


Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.



Also by Wu Qiang:

The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China

The Four Forces of China’s Politics of Smog

What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today?



Smog as a Political Analogy

By Chang Ping, published: March 4, 2015


“Each and every part (of the petroleum industry) is basically a monopoly.”

“Under a monopoly there can be no innovation.”

“Outsiders can’t break into it at all.”

“It is the one and only child. The toys are all his. He plays with them anyway he wants, and he throws them around.”

On camera, one after another, Chinese policy-making officials and environmental administrators indicted the China National Petroleum Corporation, a SOE that has contributed a great deal to air pollution in China according to Chai Jing’s documentary Under the Dome. One quickly realizes that it is also a pretty accurate assessment of the Communist Party regime itself and China’s political landscape.

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die; it’s that I don’t want to live this way.” Chai Jing’s self-reflection has now become an internet meme, but it is not the intention of the former CCTV investigative reporter to make her film a political analogy. On the contrary, some of her critics believe it actually helps weaken the demand for government accountability. Those who have been persecuted for taking part in the environmental movement or those who made similar documentaries but were harshly banned raised their doubts about how Chai Jing is able to successfully make the documentary and disseminate it.

Many environmental professionals jointed the discussion, providing the public with expert analyses and recommendations. But such expertise, taken from research and experiences in the developed countries, has long been published, and it’s hard to imagine the Chinese government has not acquired them with its mighty purchasing power. It’s been at least 10 years since the Party, under environmental pressure, proclaimed its “scientific outlook for development,” and the public has bought into the preaching that “it will change given time.” But a decade on, the smog has gotten worse. The short answer is, China’s political smog is the greater cause of its environmental smog.

Chai Jing corrects some misinformation such as the body’s adaptability to bad air. But think about it, the propaganda juggernaut works overtime to convince people that China has a special cultural tradition, Chinese like to be dominated and long for a political strongman, and they will not adjust to a democratic political system. In short, China needs dictatorship.

In fact, it is not that people have adapted to dictatorship, but that dictatorship has been damaging people’s independent thinking. “I don’t think there is any information that suggests that exposing your child to air pollution is going to help them to adapt,” Professor Edward Lawrence Avol at the University of Southern California told Chai Jing. “If you expose them on day one, they lose some function. If you expose them on day two, they don’t lose the same amount, but that’s not because they have adapted, but because they have already lost that function.”

Smog was already very serious ten years ago, but it did not make people so uneasy as it does today. As Chai Jing points out, that’s because we didn’t call it smog; we called it fog, a lovely thing for Chinese whose literature is imbued with poetic descriptions of fogginess. But Chai Jing avoided telling her audience that the concept of PM2.5 was brought to the Chinese public by the U. S. Embassy. It monitored Beijing’s air quality and publicized the data every day, and that’s how the Chinese public learned the truth about the air. In Chai Jing’s film, China’s environmental officials are portrayed very positively, but back then, they protested repeatedly, accusing the American embassy of violating diplomatic protocols. Meanwhile, the state media fanned patriotism, saying our “air quality data cannot be dictated by others.” Thanks to the American embassy’s “violation,” we know we have smog, not fog.

“One Party Dictatorship Leads to Disasters Everywhere” was the title of an editorial of Xinhua Daily, the communist party’s mouthpiece, in 1946, and the one-party dictatorship referred to the Nationalist Party rule. Today, the communist party cannot deny the existence of poisonous milk powder, poisonous pork, poisonous rice, polluted air, soil and water. But despite these environmental disasters, they insist that China must “unwaveringly maintain the party’s leadership.” When defending the industry’s monopoly, Cao Xianghong, the director of China’s National Petroleum Standard Committee and former chief engineer of CNPC, said, “Petroleum is a security issue, and it could easily cause big problems.” Politically, many Chinese have accepted the same threat that democracy will lead to turmoil, and dictatorship brings safety.

Monopoly inevitably leads to corruption. The documentary told us that “among the 36 heavy industries in China, 22 are suffering from serious overcapacity.” But instead of being eliminated by the free market, the state is propping them up with large subsidies. In the film, Liu Shiyu, the deputy head of the PBC, China’s central bank, described them as zombie companies. “They consume a large amount of financial resources, they bring unpredictable risk to our real economy, but they are still expanding.” Alas, this is also a good portrait of the regime.

Chai Jing calls to dismantle the monopolies of CNPC and Sinopec, but as long as the political monopoly remains, fair competition is unlikely, and the environmental industry will become the new field for monopoly and exploitation by the power players.  That’s why many netizens seconded the assessment that “it will only get worse if the market is opened up.”

In tackling pollution, the most important lessons China can learn from the developed countries are the public’s right to know through a free press, civic participation through freedom of association, and environmental litigation through an independent judiciary. But Xi Jinping’s government has been strangling the media and the internet through harsher censorship, and they have made it clear that “governing the country according to the law” must be led by the Party. As for civic movements, including NGOs, we have been witnessing a steady elimination of some of the most inspirational organizations of civil society through the persecution of the New Citizens Movement, Transition Institute, Liren Library, Yirenping, and independent candidates for people’s representatives. Breaking up a monopoly in a certain industry will not drive away the smog. To bring back the blue skies over China, the political monopoly must be lifted too.



长平_DWChang Ping (长平) is a veteran Chinese journalist and commentator of current affairs. He lives in Germany now. A more extended biography can be found here



Amidst the Smog, I Hear the Bugle Call for a National Environmental Movement, by Wu Qiang, February 22, 2014.


(Translated by China Change)

Amidst the Smog, I Hear the Bugle Call for a National Environmental Movement

By Wu Qiang, published: February 22, 2014   (The Chinese original was published a year ago.)

Beijing on February 21, 2014. Online photo from

Beijing on February 21, 2014. Online photo from

It was unusually cold at the beginning of 2013. All of China was enveloped in smog that would not dissipate. Finally, from north to south, people eagerly began to discuss the problems of pollution and climate change. Weibo and blogs were flooded daily with this topic, and the traditional media followed up with in-depth reports. Even academics, detached most of the time from real world issues, crossed the boundaries of academic fields to make appeals one after another, calling for the improvement of the environment with political system reform as the starting point. While winter lingered and it was almost impossible to breathe, it seemed as if the spring of an environmental movement was almost upon us.

These circumstances are similar to 1962, when the American environmental movement reached a turning point. That year, Silent Spring was published, written by the female biologist Rachel Carson. Together with her serialized article printed a bit earlier in The New Yorker, it directly pointed out the harm caused by the once widely used insecticide DDT, and harshly criticized environmentally harmful chemical magnates and other interest groups. This sparked huge controversy in America, and ushered in a tempestuous environmental movement. In China, after discovering how a fertilizer plant polluted water sources in Shacheng in 1973, the country also stopped the production of DDT, not too far behind the international trend, it seemed.

A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

However, looking back at the last 20 to 30 years, the harm done to the environment by rapid industrialization across the country is painstakingly obvious. Environmental NGOs have developed vigorously, and anti-pollution mass protests have occurred in many places. In recent years in particular, there have been a succession of spontaneous, large-scale anti-pollution NIMBY movements, such as the anti-PX incidents in Xiamen (厦门) and Dalian (大连), the protests against molybdenum mines in Shifang, Sichuan (四川什邡), the protests against wastewater discharge in Qidong, Jiangsu (江苏启东), etc. Their scope and intensity have even exceeded the more frequent movements against violent home demolitions.

But overall, they have not developed into a full-fledged environmental movement. The people of various regions across China are often each fighting their own battles, their grievances focusing on issues with the environmental evaluation of newly-proposed projects without enough vigilant awareness of industrial waste already existing in industries, soil and river pollution, geological changes, climate change, etc. As a result, they are unlikely to stop the overall trend of environmental degradation in a fundamental way.

We must then examine the problems that exist in these isolated movements. It is important to do so in order to remobilize the environmental movement.

First, the environmental deterioration in China is related to a series of arrangements in the administrative system between the central and local governments. This system has become extremely ridged and greedy over the past ten years, and because of this, the past decade has also been the most environmentally destructive decade China has ever seen. On the surface, it is true that such degradation can be blamed on local governments indulging in high-pollution manufacturing, or even attracting investment by polluting industries in pursuit of GDP, while the so-called clearing up and rectification [of such industries] is often no more than symbolic fines, symbolic production stoppages, or at most relocation. The reality is, under the impetus of the central finance system and the performance evaluation system for government officials, local governments and industries lack the drive to rein in pollution. In other words, the root of weak environmental policy lies in local governments that do not have to be responsible to the local people, a lack of horizontal accountability, and a central government that often uses manipulation and finesse between behind-the-scenes influence and overt controls to benefit itself at the expense of the local governments and the public.

Second, an independent judiciary and fair markets are the fundamental prerequisites for an environmental movement to unfold. In the past ten years, although the Property Rights Law was passed, private property owners are still unable to obtain effective protection. It is difficult for private property owners or environmentalists to resist pollution by asserting their property rights, or to make claims and demand compensation for rights infringement by polluters.

The issue of private property has been debated non-stop ever since the economic opening and reform began. As long as this issue is not dealt with, not included in the civil code, and not recognized by the Constitution and safeguarded by an independent judicial system, it will be difficult to curb environmental pollution from the approach of civil law, and the environmental movement will not be able to take root and grow strong.

Third, the biggest sources of pollution, for example, industries that produce, process, and use fossil fuels, including China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Sinopec, major coal producing provinces and industries, coal-fired power plants, the automotive industry, etc., have already formed strong interest groups. They respond negatively to reducing runoff and preventing pollution, but are confronted with few effective challenges. In the face of these interest groups, it is often only possible for organized civil society, such as environmental groups, media, and social movements, to have a chance at confrontation. The small minority of victims who file lawsuits based on rights violations are as futile as someone asking a tiger for its skin.

Shanghai in late 2013. Online photo.

Shanghai in late 2013. Online photo.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of environmental NGOs that have sprung up since the mid-1990s have chosen to cooperate with the government over the past decade or so. They have avoided conflict and avoided being drawn into any social movements. They have even avoided consciously promoting the development of environmental movements. Their choice of course can be attributed to the government restrictions on NGOs and environmental issues; cooperation is their only political opportunity. For example, in the anti-hydroelectricity activities in Nujiang (怒江), cooperation between environmental groups and the central government for a time won them a victory in the resistance against the local government and interest groups. However, in the long run, it is very difficult for such limited, “disposable” cooperation to yield results. The conservative approach of environmental NGOs, in the end, has lost them the opportunity to mobilize the public.

In an authoritarian age where stability maintenance is paramount, environmental groups have been placed on the radar of stability maintenance in many places as a foremost source of potential troublemakers because environmental issues involve interest groups, local governments, and an unsatisfied public. Many environmental activists have already suffered persecution and been imprisoned. Many methods of activism that were once effective, like policy lobbying, rights violation lawsuits, and environmental education, now seem to be facing high levels of risk. To the public, environmental issues, just like any other social problem, cannot be understood by simple observation or direct experience. Take the global warming problem for example. It is usually difficult for the average person to understand that the current severe winter is actually the result of global warming due to the correlation of Arctic Oscillation and the oscillation of the positive and negative changes in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The public’s indifference to pollution around them represents their typical level of environmental awareness. It is only when facing common experiences on a large scale, like heavy and lasting smog or a severe winter, that the public can finally begin to think seriously about the environment.

When the age of smog was upon us, we saw that those who spoke out first and exerted impact on the public as well as the government were not environmental organizations, but activists of China’s current social movement, namely, online opinion leaders and the large numbers of ordinary social media users.  Just as the real protesters during the Southern Weekend incident were in fact some Twitter users and average residents who carried out demonstration for several days on end outside of the building at No. 289 Guangzhou Avenue. In the age of smog, the mover of the environmental movement as well as its future development perhaps will not be the environmental NGOs that have forsaken opportunities and become conservatives, but rather the average citizens and participants in social movements other than the environmental movement. In this respect, they are quite similar to the environmental movements of North America and Europe. The hand-in-hand development of an environmental movement and an extra-party movement in Taiwan in the 1980s is also very inspirational to us.

A group of Beijing artists protested against toxic smog on February 24, 2014.

A group of Beijing artists protested against toxic smog on February 24, 2014.

For example, in the development of environmental movements in Europe, politically conservative ecological groups, like The Club of Rome and the Audubon Society, admittedly played their roles, but to a large degree, these movements benefited from the contributions of radical social movements. With the mobilization of Anti-Vietnam War protesters, an entire generation of European scholars and youth became involved in a sweeping social movement, demanding that materialistic development and the control of national welfare systems over society be changed. In the 1970s, this movement evolved into a new social movement of which the environmental movement was the main part. It can be traced back to late 1950s Germany, flourishing in the 1968 student movements in Germany and France before converging with ecologism. After the student movements in the early 1970s dissipated, they were gradually transformed into various new social movements, such as the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, and environmental movements that included the anti-nuclear movement. Environmental movements and other new social movements thus shared common networks and backgrounds from these student movements. The student movements of 1968 cultivated an entire generation of young political activists. They provided the main leaders and cadres for environmental movements later. The next step was to form parties or pass the movements onto the public.

Throughout the 1980s, green parties were established in European countries. At the same time, as mainstream politics inclined towards conservatism (for example, the Thatcher government once expressed hostility towards environmental creativity) or mainstream political parties were unwilling to take up environmental issues, Europe’s environmental groups and newly established green parties continued to advocate their environmental positions to the public. This stance and method of dissemination had a far-reaching influence. Some estimate that in 1985, there were approximately 10 million western Europeans belonging to one or more environmental groups, and the number of people participating in local environmental movements was two or three times as many. By the beginning of the 1990s, the general public in Europe had totally embraced environmentalism. Even though “un-mobilization” and institutionalization appeared to have become the trend in the environmental movement, and there were fewer protests and demonstrations in comparison to the 1980s, public opinion became the most important resource of the environmental movement. The protests did not decline with the institutionalization of the movement, rather, they became the mainstream position swinging the attitudes of political parties.

In China, it is possible that the age of smog will set in motion an opportunity for the masses to directly participate. While environmental organizations will still carefully evade the mobilization of the masses, it is possible that more radical public opinion leaders, rights defense activists, and average citizens will take on the role of the transducer. They will express their anger over the “Beijing cough” to the ruling class on behalf of the emerging urban middle class and transform the worries of the masses into pressure on all levels of government.

Young people protested against smog in Xi'an in 2013. Online photo.

Young people protested against smog in Xi’an in 2013. Online photo.

Next, for an environmental movement to expand to other domains, it will depend, to a large degree, on whether the environmental movement can truly persist. Taiwan’s experience was more politicized — the political opposition mobilized the public to participate in politics through anti-nuclear power plant and anti-pollution environmental movements. In mainland China, conditions are not ripe for doing this. But it is possible for an environmental movement to merge with another event that grips the masses. From there, it can slowly ferment, exploiting a path to mobilize society and the entire urban middle class to seek social justice.

One thing that the Chinese public knows, and has put up with, is that behind environmental pollution is an economic model by the powerful and the rich, a lack of protection for private property, and excessive exploitation of natural resources. Environmental degradation also implies the inequality of social distribution, the issue of environmental justice.

The greatest victims of the electronic waste pollution in Guiyu, Guangzhou (广东贵屿) were the workers processing trash. The victims of lead, zinc, and rare earth metal mines in Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi, and other places, are the local farmers. The main victims of smog are urban workers, the elderly, and children. Behind coal, China’s main source of energy, are the facts of the abominable production conditions for the mine workers: for every million tons of coal, there are approximately 2,000 deaths. The working class, average urban residents, and the rural poor are the direct victims of environmental pollution, the sacrificial goats of environmental injustice. They are directly damaged by pollution in every stage of production and life but have the least protections. It is difficult for them to enjoy drinking water, air, food, public sanitation, and scenery that are up to standard. They have no place to escape.

The international community has continuously demanded that China step up its emission reductions, but the Chinese government has always used environmental justice as a shield to fend off such demand. Under the Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang administration’s new political promise of a “beautiful China,” however, there seems to be, all of a sudden, some legitimate elbowroom for the issue in domestic struggles. All kinds of social movement activists can take the route of environmental justice to expand the scope of the population that could be mobilized for an environmental movement, demand change to the unequal relationships of employers and employees, press for implementation of private property rights, and resist the despicable actions of interest groups.

Thick smog shrouds China. While it might be difficult for people to see each other’s faces, the distance between the public and an environmental movement is becoming smaller than ever before.

January 29, 2013


Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) of Tsinghua University

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) of Tsinghua University

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) is a political science professor at Tsinghua University.


The War between the Government and the People over PX Projects in China, by Zhao Chu

Also by Dr. Wu Qiang:

Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview



(Translation by Jack)

Chinese original