Would you swim in China's rivers?

A burgeoning popular interest in China's ecological problems has led to citizens trying to win greater oversight of environmental decision-making.

At the start of June, an ominous, if faintly absurd, tale appeared in China's state-owned Global Times newspaper. Buddhists in north-west Beijing had released thousands of live carp and turtles into the Beisha River – a ritual honouring Guanyin, the “Goddess of Mercy”, often accompanied by prayers for longevity – but the fish and reptiles had promptly died en masse from the pollution. The short news report described an “odorous river… infested with flies and rotting fish”. The capital’s water authorities, it added, had “blamed residents” for the disaster.

The next day, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) announced that pollution in China’s countryside had continued to worsen in 2012, as industry and mining expanded without adequate protections – even in the face of legislative efforts. “With industrialisation, urbanisation and the modernisation of agriculture, the situation for the rural environment has become grim,” the MEP said in its annual report, in an admission that will have surprised few.

China’s cities have been rocked by increasingly noisy and networked protests about environmental problems, just as rural pollution has intensified. Earlier this year, a former leading member of the Communist Party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs said that pollution had replaced land disputes as the leading catalyst for “mass incidents”, or social unrest. Said Chen Jiping: “If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm?” His argument is sound – and people have not remained calm. But neither have their protests been as unfocused, as mob-like or irrational, as the label “mass incident” might imply.

Earlier this year, Chinese microbloggers posted challenges to government officials to swim in their local polluted rivers. One entrepreneur in eastern China offered his city’s environment chief more than £20,000 to swim for 20 minutes in a local waterway – an offer that he illustrated with pictures of the foul river teeming with rubbish. The official declined. Similarly creative approaches include that of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which compiles publicly available water and air pollution information into online maps, or the enterprising engineers of FLOAT Beijing, who attached tiny Bluetooth-enabled pollution sensors onto kites, traditionally flown by hobbyists in the capital.

These innovations point to one of China’s best hopes: that it might harness public participation to help address its ecological woes. Such an approach would not be unprecedented: the MEP has periodically called on civil-society groups to help implement its laws and regulations, which are so often disregarded by local officials focused on growth at all costs and compromised by their close relationships with polluters. The government has also introduced Open Government Information Regulations that – on paper, if not in practice – give citizens the right to know about hazardous pollution in their area and the government approval process for environmentally sensitive projects.

Perhaps most prominently, a storm last year on Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) forced Beijing – and now some 73 other cities – to release real-time information about airborne concentrations of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, which penetrates deep into the lungs. Citing this example, the director at a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a prestigious government think-tank, wrote recently that “government, non-government organisations and industry… should seize the opportunity provided by the growing popular involvement, and promote a civil society that stands up for the environment.”

This burgeoning popular involvement has emerged through a number of important Chinese campaigns, mainly over the past decade – some of them successful, others less so – led by journalists, NGOs, legal defenders, urban and rural activists. In every case, citizens have tried to win greater oversight of environmental decision-making – to become involved in building a greener China. But whether the leadership takes that same lesson from the tale of the dead carp is yet to be seen. Perhaps somebody should check if the official in charge of the Beisha River fancies a dip?

Sam Geall’s "China and the Environment: The Green Revolution" is published by Zed Books (2013). He is executive editor of and teaches human geography of China at University of Oxford.

A fisherman working on Chaohu Lake, which is filled with cyanobacteria. Photograph: Getty Images
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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.