How to define 'environmental justice' in China

Bryan Tilt

‘Chinese people don’t care about pollution’

Three decades of liberal economic reforms have brought new prosperity for many Chinese but the rapid urbanization and industrialization are taking a heavy environmental toll.

How to assess the situation in terms of environmental justice is the question that interests Bryan Tilt, a Research Fellow and OSU anthropologist. Environmental research in the United States and Europe tends to assume that litigation, community activism, and public protest are viable strategies to address environmental justice concerns. This is not the case in China, “where governmental respect for individual rights is poor, environmental litigation is in its infancy, and public protest is often suppressed.”

“China’s government and its citizens thus are confronting new social and political questions about the role of public participation in environmental decision-making, the uneven distribution of harmful environmental effects, and transparency in the environmental oversight process,” said Tilt.

“Environmental justice” is a relatively new term that emerged in the last two decades to describe the uneven distribution of environmental risks among certain social groups, notably racial minorities and the poor in the U.S. Environmental justice research examines how individuals and communities link environmental concerns with struggles for civil rights and social justice.

For the past several years, Tilt has focused on understanding the ecological and health risks from industrial pollution in China, where the annual Gross Domestic Product growth rate hovers in the near double digits, and which is widely expected to become the world’s largest economy within the next two decades.

When Tilt presents his research to other scholars, he said, he tends to hear one of two responses.

“The first is that Chinese people likely don’t care about pollution because they are focused on the immediate need for economic development. The second is that, even if people did care about pollution, public opinion doesn’t matter very much in the context of an authoritarian, single-party government that emphasizes economic development over environmental protection.”

The responses have lead to questions that are guiding his research: Where do successful environmental strategies come from? What cultural values and legal precedents underpin them? In what political contexts have these strategies been deployed? What are the problems and prospects involved in applying the strategies to China?

Though authority and control of information are concentrated in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, the role of civil society is also significant. Citizens’ groups often find creative ways to accomplish their goals, using strategies for addressing environmental justice that include lawsuits, petitions, and sometimes open protest.

“There are some signs that these strategies are beginning to bear fruit,” said Tilt. In 2005, the State Environmental Protection Administration stopped 30 major industrial projects for failure to conduct proper environmental impact analyses. Environmental protest is on the rise—as long as it remains local and small in scale—and the Internet is becoming a major tool for information sharing and organization around s hared interests.

Tilt sees two major implications for his research. The first is that a better understanding of the constraints operating in China is a crucial step toward resolution of the country’s environmental problems. The second is that, because the study is comparative, it will give insight into the extent to which “an established environmental justice model in the United States, which is predicated on liberal democratic principles such as litigation and freedom of expression, can be applied to a dramatically different cultural and political context.”