Written by Sam Geall.

Fighting official corruption in China can be achieved through a more open “sunshine government” (政府阳光), said Chinese premier Li Keqiang in a recent speech. It’s an opinion that was apparently shared by the country’s last administration. “Power must be exercised in the sunshine,” said former president Hu Jintao in 2007, “to ensure that it is exercised correctly.”

In 2008, Hu presided over the adoption of the Open Government Information Regulations, which the Ministry of Environmental Protection operationalised in a specific decree, requiring local environmental bureaus to proactively disclose certain types of information and to respond to citizens’ requests. Many local bureaus have since published data on their websites, but disclosure requests from the public, particularly when related to sensitive issues like the disposal of hazardous waste, are often unsuccessful.

That familiar gap between regulations and enforcement – as well as continued censorship – is one reason that Li’s speech was met with some derision. But there is at least one significant new element to his remarks: that the premier situated the transparency debate in the context of flourishing online communication in China, noting that social media had helped to open up “hot-spot issues” (热点问题), like environmental pollution, food and drug safety, to greater public scrutiny.

On this point, he was surely on to something. Take air pollution, for example: the internet facilitated not only the widespread public outcry that accompanied the recent “Airpocalypse” in northern China, which opened up important conversations about issues like vehicle-emissions standards, but also the successful campaign that played out across the microblogs last year to include PM2.5 – a measure of particularly unhealthy fine particulate matter – in China’s official pollution indices for the first time.

Other examples abound, some serious in tone, some more playful and subversive. Last year, when residents of Shifang, in Sichuan province, protested against the proposed construction of a copper refinery, a photograph of a baton-wielding police officer chasing student demonstrators was wittily re-imagined and circulated online. Liu Bo – his name identified through crowd sourcing, or the “human flesh search engine” (人肉搜索) – now ran after the famous hurdler Liu Xiang and charged into the background of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”.

China’s “green public sphere” is not that new: in 2007, the sociologists Yang Guobin and Craig Calhoun wrote in China Information about the pro-environmental discourse emerging from the green NGO movement in China, then taking stock after a seeming victory on the Nu River, in Yunnan province, where a proposed cascade of dams had been shelved. Those dams are now back on the agenda, but the two scholars did accurately describe the emergence of a more pluralistic public conversation about environmental policy, one that had already begun to incorporate new forms of media.

That conversation has grown louder, not only in response to increasingly lurid environmental incidents – from the tens of thousands of dead pigs that turned the Huangpu into a deeply unappetizing soup, to the “gutter oil” phenomenon – but also due to the expanded and increasingly networked landscape for environmental media in China. The country’s most popular microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, now has more than 300 million registered users; environmental reporting has become one of the most prominent and dynamic genres of journalism in China – a mainstay of the progressive media outlets typified by Caixin Media’s New Century Weekly, or the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly.

So, how might such a renewed government commitment to environmental openness be understood? Can China effectively harness greater transparency and citizen participation to address the local collusion between officials and polluters that so often prevents environmental laws from being properly enforced? Can the government better understand the highly complex “hot spots” identified by the premier –the social fallout from pollution incidents, the challenge of ensuring food and drug safety – by turning its attention to China’s online chatter?

Numerous citizen responses to environmental problems – from NGO activism, to urban “strolls” and public-interest legal challenges – are explored in a book I recently edited: China and the Environment: The Green RevolutionOf the approaches the authors and I discussed, perhaps the most innovative – and those which might hint at a way forward for environmental transparency in China – fall into the category of “citizen science”: a field that blurs the traditional boundaries of local knowledge and scientific expertise and harnesses the wisdom of crowds, often to challenge official narratives on the environment.

FLOAT Beijing is one such example: a project that blurs art, activism and engineering by using small pollution monitors fixed on kites, flown by hobbyists in the Chinese capital, to publish real-time air-quality data online and create an open-source alternative to official pollution statistics. Green Beagle, another Beijing-based group, has also organised residents to use portable handheld detectors that can measure air quality.

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, founded by the Goldman Prize winner Ma Jun, has for several years collected publicly available information to build online maps of environmental data that citizens can look up to find sources of pollution near them, and to judge the relative transparency of their local administrations. More recently, Danger Maps created an overlay on Baidu Maps – an open platform, similar to Google Maps – that allows netizens to upload their own data to a map identifying potential environmental hazards near their homes.

Most explosively, the enterprising journalist Deng Fei used crowd-sourcing methods to create an online map of “cancer villages” dotted across central China. The state-owned newspaper Global Times even shared this on its official microblog, perhaps suggesting that even among the political elite, such measures are seen as the future of environmental transparency and open government.

The fate of such projects may be a bellwether for the “sunshine government” agenda in China. Together, they ask one the most critical questions in environmental decision-making: whose evidence counts? China’s environmental movement began with a clear emphasis on greater openness and public participation in governance: from the “Summer Palace hearings” in 2005, when a row over the fate of a lake in Yuanmingyuan Park led to a ground-breaking public consultation, to the debate in Xiamen in 2007, which brought an end to the conflict over a planned petrochemical plant. However, without these participatory approaches, sustainability risks becoming a closed discussion — a purely technocratic domain — rather than a pluralistic enterprise open to multiple voices, voices which today are increasingly embedded in the online public sphere.

Twenty years ago, China had perhaps one or two registered environmental NGOs (the first was founded in 1991). Now it has thousands of registered groups and maybe even millions unregistered. It has newspapers and magazines that regularly report on environmental incidents, and legal firms that represent pollution victims. It has a tech-savvy younger generation that is increasingly concerned about the environment. The challenge for the political elite is to hear these voices and empower them: to make them an integral part of China’s move toward a greener form of development.

Sam Geall is Departmental Lecturer at Oxford University and Executive Editor of China Dialogue. He is the Editor of China and the Environment: The Green Revolution (2013: Zed Books).

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