Green grassroots journalism important to tackle China’s environmental problems

Could green citizen journalism on social media be a way to solve China’s huge environmental problems?
“Perhaps. Citizen journalism forces change. However, the authorities still believe that experts and more control from above will solve the problem of climate change. They haven’t understood that the trend cannot be reversed without the involvement of a grassroots movement.”

Kina avgaser

An increasing number of people are getting involved in the fight against China’s major environmental problems. Photo: Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

Sam Geall from the University of Sussex conducts research on innovation to reduce carbon emissions in China. He recently visited the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies (ACE) at Lund University and the research project Digital China. One of the LU researchers, Marina Svensson, specialises in investigative journalism and the use of social media by activists, including NGOs.

“The opportunities to conduct journalism in the ‘public space’ of the internet have expanded. However, it is important to know the boundaries of what the authorities will tolerate in order not to step out of line”, she says.

China has the world’s highest levels of carbon dioxide emissions. However, it is not only environmental problems that are increasing. Social disquiet is also on the rise, explains Sam Geall. It is estimated that there are between 30 000 and 50 000 mass protests across China every year, and most are about environmental and climate change problems. Almost half of the population regard air pollution as the biggest problem in society.

Politicians are making earnest attempts to improve the situation. Huge amounts are being invested in the development of new, low-carbon technology and electric cars. However, the technocratic, top-down perspective excludes the contributions that broad popular involvement can make.

“When citizens oppose nuclear power as a replacement for coal, the authorities dismiss them as the irrational, emotional middle class. What we are seeing is a new public sustainability orthodoxy from the Chinese authorities”, says Sam Geall.

In his view, it is in the less certain and more diverse approach of the public that a possible solution may be found. China’s many thousands of environmental NGOs can make a difference. They gather information from different sources and engage both ordinary citizens and professional journalists. They run their own websites and are active in social media. An alternative public is developing and with it a more complex and truer picture of environmental and climate change problems.

“This journalism influences the authorities. Its influence has been clearest in the official measurements of air pollution. When these have shown clear skies in Beijing, the citizens’ posts have proved the opposite.”

International media picked up the news of a group of engineering students who started building their own kites to measure air pollution at a large number of sites across the country and reporting the results to independent websites. This monitoring by citizens has forced more correct reporting by the authorities.

Another example of what free alternative journalism can achieve is the case of China’s third largest lake, on the border with Mongolia – an important freshwater source that is under threat from pollution. The official explanation has always been that climate change is responsible, i.e. “forces outside our control”. However, a young freelance journalist started talking to the local population and uncovered alternative explanations – such as industrial effluent from a large mine by the lake – and published them on the internet.

“When he connected the reports from the local population with researchers who knew the characteristics of the grassland around the lake, they suddenly found a more complex but also more correct picture of the problem, which also pointed to a solution.”

The ongoing discussion in social media and the combination of professional journalism and committed citizens is what gives Sam Geall hope when it comes to combating climate change. In the discussion with the grassroots, there is a dynamic that is lacking in traditional political, bureaucratic governance. There is a social learning process and room for uncertainty and testing ideas, which are needed to reverse the trend.

Because the environmental problems in China are so serious, both citizens and those in power have a strong drive to do something about them. This has led to greater openness and pluralism in society as a whole. One example is the bilingual website China Dialogue, which Sam Geall edits (https://www.chinadialogue.net/ ). On the site, a dialogue is held on environmental issues and climate change on a level and with an openness that no one believed possible just a few years ago.

Is he optimistic or pessimistic about China’s ability to deal with the environmental issues? Both, is the answer.

“We can learn from China’s long-term investments in green technology and innovation. However, the big challenge is what happens at local level, where profit-hungry developers work together with corrupt politicians who are in power thanks to the economic growth they can demonstrate. In these contexts, environmental legislation is taken fairly lightly.”

Britta Collberg