The Pollution Crisis and Environmental Activism in China: A Q&A with Ralph Litzinger

Protest against a proposed chemical plant last year in Shifang, Sichuan

The last year has seen a dramatic uptick in press coverage of Chinese environmental issues. There have also been a number of books published on the subject, with more due out soon. So this seemed a good moment to get in touch with my friend Ralph Litzinger, an anthropologist based at Duke University. He has been tracking the topic closely, while also writing about other important issues, ranging from Tibetan self-immolations to labor conditions in and protests at Chinese factories. Currently in Beijing, he sent me the following thoughtful responses to questions I put to him via email:

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: There have been a lot of news reports lately about Chinese environmental and health issues, from the smog levels in Beijing to dead pigs floating in rivers near Shanghai. What’s something important that you think someone who only pays passing attention to Chinese stories might have missed in this flurry of coverage?

Ralph Litzinger: We have indeed seen a barrage of stories on everything from the Beijing “airpocalypse,” as many call the foul smog that descended over Beijing in January and February, to the 750 dead pigs pulled from the Huangpu River in Shanghai in March, to the more recent news of meat merchants selling lamb mixed with rat, fox, mink, and a range of chemicals. These are not isolated or novel events. They have a troubling history that moves almost in lockstep with China’s great “opening and reform.” That said, reading the press, or perusing online chat rooms in China, one would not be wrong to get the impression that China is now in the midst of an environmental and health meltdown.

Living in Beijing every spring and summer for the last three years, I have watched the emergence of a health-conscious urban middle class deeply concerned about where food comes from, who produces it, and what ultimately ends up in it. Many of my colleagues in university settings, for example, increasingly eat all of their meals at home; many are eating less and less meat. Organic food is getting popular. But this is all specific to a very small sector of the population. Walk the streets of Beijing and one gets a different impression. Beijing restaurants are overflowing with people eager to eat out, including lower-end restaurants and food stalls that cater to migrant workers and lower-income Beijingers. In these spaces you would never know there is a major environmental and health crisis in the making! For most people in Beijing, and certainly in most of China, life carries on as usual. Different classes and social groups experience these food scandals in quite divergent ways.

The same could be said about the air in Beijing. There is no doubt that the air has been shockingly bad. Much of the publicity about deteriorating air conditions came from a new kind of middle-class activist citizen who took to the streets to monitor the air, posting findings and images on weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and other social networking platforms. These same people also tended to use the U.S. Embassy air quality monitoring as a way to critique the Beijing city government for its failure, until recently, to report the most harmful particulate matter in the air. But head out into the outer rings roads of Beijing, where the poorest of Beijing’s migrants and residents live and work, and you experience a very different situation. You see fewer people wearing masks, and hear much less complaining about the air. It is not that migrant and urban fringe communities in Beijing don’t care about health and environmental issues; it is just that they haven’t received the same kind of attention that the middle-class urban resident has received. Migrants, for example, don’t keep their kids home from school when the air is bad, and migrant schools do not have outdoor exercise facilities covered in protective bubbles, as one finds at some of the best schools in Beijing.

So, what is missing in the flurry of coverage in recent months? Not enough attention to the moral geographies of polluted spaces. We are mostly hearing the voices of the middle class and the new rich. I think this is evidenced in a recent piece by Edward Wong of the New York Times. The middle class can keep its kids home, protect them from the Beijing air, and even contemplate ways to get them out of the country; the poor, the migrant, and the precarious worker cannot.

JW: For several years straight now, there have been Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) protests of various sorts in different Chinese cities. In these, locals have often called for a toxic plant to close or be moved, though in some cases there have been different causes, such as when Shanghai residents rallied to stop the extension through the city of a magnetic levitation train line. How significant do you think these protests are?

RL: There is no doubt we are seeing a new form of environmental and health consciousness in China’s urban centers, especially in the eastern seaboard cities. In the places where the mass protests occurred in 2013—Ningbo, Dalian, Qidong (just north of Shanghai), Guangzhou—we saw an incredible amount of knowledge being shared via social networking sites about chemical plants, long-term health effects, toxic runoff, and the shady deals city leaders have made with the companies hoping to build and expand these plants. This knowledge gets shared really fast, and protests can be mobilized in what often seems like an instant. The government uses these same social networking sites to disseminate its own information, or to plea for harmony and social order. Online activists then mock and ridicule these government postings. The protests on the street, the use of web-based social networking platforms, and the government security apparatus are in constant play during these events.

We saw the use of social media perhaps most powerfully in the July 2012 protests in Shifang, Sichuan, an interior province. This protest was started by high school students who researched the possible deadly effects of a proposed molybdenum copper plant, and then used China’s most popular social networking sites, such as qq, We-Chat, and weibo, to post documents, images, and fact sheets. Once the police turned on the protesters in Shifang, as happened in other cities, images of blood and violence were almost instantaneously shared across the Internet.

I mention Shifang last because of where it is located. The significance of these NIMBY protests is not just in the compelling drama of online social networks. My theory is that the government and the owners of big chemical and heavy metal processing plants know that, in the long run, they will lose the battle to expand facilities in east coast cities, where urban citizens will continue to turn out and protest. This is why the government continues to push for companies to build their factories and chemical refineries in China’s interior provinces. They make the false assumption that people living in or close to the poverty line will accept almost any kind of work, put up with the worst kind of environmental and health conditions. I think this is a highly suspect assumption. I suspect more and more industrial-related environmental protests will occur in the coming years in the western provinces of China, as the industrial manufacturing and chemical processing base is moved to the interior of the country.

JW: One of the most recent—maybe the most recent—NIMBY protest was in Kunming, a city I know you spent a lot of time in and that I remember from my one visit there in 1987 as an unusually beautiful and slow-paced place. I realize I’ll be in a shock if I return there, since I’ve heard it has grown exponentially in recent years and no longer has the same feel of being largely untouched by the harsher aspects of urban life. What’s your take on how the city’s changed and how this recent protests fits into the picture?

RL: Kunming is indeed a place very close to my heart. I first visited Kunming in 1990. As with many cities in China, the changes there are astonishing. Frankly, some of the development has been, to my mind, misguided, if only because Kunming now looks and feels like just another generic city on development steroids. Satellite cities are popping up all around Kunming, and many of these are sites for planned chemical factories, petrochemical plants, and other industrial manufacturing operations. On the one hand, we can argue that the protests in Kunming, meant to coincide with the May Fourth anniversary (one of the most hallowed days on the Chinese political calendar, commemorating as it does a patriotic 1919 Beijing demonstration that launched a nation-wide mass movement), are evidence of a growing consciousness, seen in other cities, about industrial pollution, chemical runoff into watersheds and rivers, and the environmental and health effects of tin and copper and other heavy mental mining. One the other hand, we have to recognize that only a hundred, perhaps two hundred people showed up for this protest, and while their masks and protest signs were imaginative and creative, within a day or two the energy had fizzled. In Chengdu, a similar protest was planned at the same time about a proposed plant to be built in the nearby town of Pengzhou. Security forces blocked access to the large Tianfu Square, where the protest was to occur, in the name of an earthquake preparedness drill. City and public authority figures killed this protest even before it started.

The direction and importance of future urban-based protests in Kunming are difficult to predict. But there are other developments in Yunnan worth paying close attention to. For example, since 2011, Beijing-based Friends of Nature and Greenpeace China have been very active in drawing media attention to a “cancer village” called Xinlong. Over the course of some ten years, the Yunnan Luliang Chemical Company has dumped about 5,000 tons of toxic waste into the water supply and fields in and around Xinlong. Unaware of the effects of this toxic sludge, villagers drank the water and walked and worked daily in the contaminated runoff. The toxic sludge contained large amounts of the cancer-causing chromium VI, used in electroplating and in the manufacture of stainless steel. Greenpeace started a major media campaign, which forced the Ministry of Environmental Protection to crack down on illegal chromium VI dumping sites across China. More recently, Friends of Nature, working with local villagers, filed a public interest lawsuit against Liulang. The suit, the first time a grassroots environmental organization has taken an industrial chemical company to court, is an attempt to demand compensation for those who have suffered from cancer and to force the company to engage in a major cleanup operation. This shows how urban-based environmentalists are most effective when they get out of the cities and into the countryside where the most egregious and harmful forms of industrial pollution are occurring.

JW: Can you point readers who want to know more about Chinese environmental issues to one academic work and one non-academic work they should read?

RL: That is a tough question, because there are several works I’d like to highlight. On the academic front, I’d recommend Anna Lora-Wainwright’s Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village, just published by the University of Hawaii Press. This is our first ethnography of industrial cancer villages, and will be widely read and discussed. Tim Choy’s book on eco-politics in Hong Kong, Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong, is a must read for anyone interested in how expert knowledge of life forms gets produced, circulated, and reinterpreted; along the way you learn about white dolphins, Greenpeace in Hong Kong, and how Hong Kong’s air was turned into a medical and environmental cause.

On the non-academic front, there is a short and very accessible book of essays, edited by Sam Geall, called China and the Environment: The Green Revolution. This is a great introduction to some key environmental protests in recent years, and a perfect companion to Judith Shapiro’s recently published China’s Environmental Challenges, which is probably the best introductory overview of China’s environmental crisis.

JW: How about one or two Chinese activists you wish were better known outside of China?

RL: I have to begin with Ma Jun and his Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing. They have been doing extraordinary pollution mapping work in China, and have created a network of environmental activists around what they call the “Green Choice Alliance.” They were instrumental in the first reports to expose the links between Apple and its suppliers’ environmental and health record in factories across China. I’d also point to Li Bo, who recently stepped down as director of Friends of Nature. He remains deeply involved in a range of environmental justice struggles in China, from toxic waste to energy politics and dam building in west China.

Liu Jianqiang is one of my favorite journalists turned activists. He recently gave talks in the United States to different audiences in New York and Washington D.C., so his voice and perspective is now getting the attention it deserves, and he has a very important essay, “Defending Tiger Leaping Gorge,” in the volume edited by Sam Gaell mentioned above. Feng Yongfeng, a journalist and founder of the organization Green Beagle, is one of the most tireless environmental activists working in China today. His work too rarely gets read or acknowledged in the western press. And then there is the invaluable work being done by all of the people at China Dialogue, a site that produces the best stream of environment-related news, in both English and Chinese.

Finally, let me say that while I have highlighted a few key figures, it is probably not correct to think strictly in terms of individuals or even just a couple of groups, as important as IPE and China Dialogue are. The burgeoning environmental movement has organizations all across China working on shoestring budgets and depending heavily on volunteer labor. It is this emerging network that will, in my estimation, ultimately make a difference in the struggle for environmental justice in China.

JW: What about films relating to the environment?

RL: The most powerful documentary film I have seen recently is Beijing Besieged by Waste, directed by the brilliantly gifted photographer Wang Jiuliang. It is a story about rubbish, landfills, and dumpsites; the unseen fringe zones of the city; and, most poignantly, about the lives of the trash collectors who troll the city daily, making their homes amid the discarded debris of everyday urban life. Ruby Yang’s The Warriors of Qiugang is a harrowing but hopeful look at how villagers in Anhui Province—in Qiugang—joined forces with the environmental group Green Anhui to challenge an industrial chemical plant that had severely damaged the livestock, rivers, wildlife, and people in and around the village. In light of the recent large-scale NIMBY protests in urban centers such as Dalian and Kunming, this is an important film because it tells the story of the environmentalism of the poor, the people who never get in the headlines, the people too many of us refuse to see, but who nevertheless have powerful stories to tell about their struggles to stop the industrial devastation of everyday village life.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and a member of Dissent’s editorial board. He is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which will appear in June, and co-editor (with Angilee Shah) of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land.

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