Unveiling the Unexplored: The Changing Mode of Public Participation in Environmental Governance China
.In November 2022, China’s State Council announced a spatial layout plan for national parks. It selected 49 candidate areas for building national parks, including the first five that had all been recently developed. After these 49 planned parks are established, China will have the largest national park system in the world, covering close to 10% of the country’s land area and protecting 80% of its key wildlife species and their habitats. This plan, involving 700 existing protected areas and 10 world heritage sites across 28 provinces, is just one component, and not even the largest, of a series of mega initiatives that China has been rapidly implementing to enhance biodiversity conservation in recent years. Many of these actions were showcased at the 15th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held in Kunming in 2021. As part of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to construct an ‘ecological civilization’, these ambitious plans and global engagement efforts exemplify China’s growing aspiration to become a global champion for biodiversity.
Biodiversity conservation and biosafety regulations have been active fields of public participation and contestation in the post-Mao era. Since the 1980s, a vibrant environmental civil society has emerged in China, with environmental NGOs and activists at the centre of public participation, engaging in a wide range of activities, while protests have broken out in society at large. The campaigns to save the Tibetan Antelopes and the protests against dam building on Nu River and other southwestern areas are some of the well-known cases for biodiversity contestations in the 2000s. The recent reforms in biodiversity conservation have disrupted the bureaucratic status quo and will make significant impacts on the land use and the livelihoods of millions of the people living within and off these areas. Reforms of this nature inevitably create both winners and losers, often leading to disagreement and discontent. Additionally, the party state emphasizes the imperative to enhance institutions for public participation, with a focus on information disclosure. This commitment is evident in the broader construction of ecological civilization and, specifically, the development of national park systems.
Given all the above, it is puzzling that we haven’t witnessed an explosion of public participation in China’s “green leap forward.” The conservation reforms have rolled out without meeting much open discontent. Two underlying trends by and large explain this state-dominated green development: tightened political control and technocratic environmentalism. Entering president Xi Jinping’s reign, the party state pruned civil society organizations, cracked down on civil rights lawyers and public opinion leaders, and intensified surveillance and censorship. As the political dynamics significantly changed around civil society, the era of “contentious public spheres” came to an end. Meanwhile, the green reforms have been carried out as technocratic measures. The national park reform, for instance, was specifically framed as a top-level institutional design, thus a highly technical matter not suitable for public deliberation. The reforms themselves rely on, although not exclusively, technical measures such as top-down zoning, planning, and standard-making to engineer change.
Does this mean the end of public participation in China’s pursuit of biodiversity conservation? Not quite. The incentives for the public to be involved in biodiversity governance have actually grown stronger from both the state and the society. I argue that since the Chinese party state now prioritizes ecological conservation, it actually needs more public participation and support for effective governance and legitimacy than before. For one thing, public oversight helps the party state overcome local incompliances—a perennial principle-agent problem caused by the misalignment between the central environmental agenda and local interest. As a result, the state encourages and even nudges the public to be informed and involved, albeit through significantly different venues. Chinese society, upon growing more affluent, has become more attuned to ecological issues while private sector actors and professional conservationists moved to the centre of the organizational scenes.
What emerges is a picture of the changing mode of public participation in the conservation reform era: the wide-ranging activism in the “contentious public sphere” has been replaced over the past decade by a combination of increasingly professional engagement, grassroot conservation practice, growing citizen science and nature education, and mass participation without mobilization. This also reflects the impact of technology development: the penetration of digital technology in Chinese society has transformed the ways the state and the public engage with each other, as evidenced by China’s COVID-19 pandemic responses..
I. Reforming Biodiversity Governance: A Green Leap Forward?
.China was one of the earliest countries to sign the UNCBD. Systematic conservation in China started in the 1980s, initially in a rescue mode such as with the establishment of conservation areas and breeding programs for Giant Pandas. Over the years, China has built up an extensive conservation system for in-situ and ex-situ protection of species, ecosystems, and genetic resources. It launched two of the largest land rehabilitation programs in the world—the Natural Forest Protection Program and the Returning Farmlands to Forests/Grassland program in the late 1990s. In addition, Asia’s Noah’s Ark, the second largest germplasm bank for wildlife species in the world, was established in Yunnan.
Despite all the efforts, China has still experienced rapid losses in the diversity of biological resources in the wake of its economic take off in the reform era. Industrial pollution, over exploitation, habitat loss, climate change, and invasive species all contribute to the crisis. At the political level, the government long prioritized development over anything else, especially the environment; thus the ‘develop first’ and ‘develop at any cost’ mindsets of the party state is responsible for the fast deterioration of its environment. Biodiversity conservation against such trends is an uphill battle.
Under President Xi Jinping’s call for constructing an “ecological civilization,” China has made big strides in curbing biodiversity loss and protecting ecological resources. In less than ten years’ time, it has streamlined the highly fragmented protected area administration that oversees 18% of the terrestrial land area of the country; it set up a new flagship category of protected areas—national parks—and come up with a technical blueprint for it. As part of these orchestrated actions, multiple novel national territorial land zoning schemes were implemented, including the ‘ecological redlines,’ which aim to protect precious and fragile ecological areas in no less than 25% of China’s terrestrial land. The reforms push on many fronts, including tackling the conservation frontier issues such as marine biodiversity, and launching several major national conservation and restoration programs, among other things. China has also made headways in biodiversity-related legislations and regulations. It enacted and revised major environmental protection legislations including passing the National Biosecurity Law in 2020.
The “green leap forward’ managed to roll out rapidly with minimal public contention. This signifies the end of an era of contentious public sphere that has resulted from the tightened political control of civil society in the 2010s..
II. The Rise and Fall of Contentious Environmental Public Spheres
The contentious environmental public spheres
.Despite the crippling regulatory system and volatile political environment, environmental civil society in China exhibited resilience and productivity before the dramatic policy changes of the mid-2010s. This marks the rise and fall of the contentious environmental public sphere in China, according to the Harvard University sociologist Yawen Lei. Civil society organizations, although not the only central actors, were at the centre of this unusually active and “unruly sphere capable of generating issues and agendas not set by the Chinese state, as opposed to a sphere mostly orchestrated and constrained by said state.”
Environmental NGOs (ENGOs) first emerged in the post-socialist China in the 1980s. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) entered China to save the Giant Pandas in the 1980s. China’s first domestic environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, was established in 1994. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, environmental NGOs flourished as China experienced a surge in public participation through non-governmental organizations, or an “associational revolution” as some scholars put it. By 2010, estimates put the total number of NGOs at close to 1 million. The government was also keen to establish NGOs that were dependent on it, leading to the creation of governmental-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs).
The first generations of China’s ENGO leaders are a mix of journalists, ecologists, scientists, lawyers, concerned citizens, and public intellectuals. Their activities varied widely, ranging from working with the government to promote environmental and conservation policies to suing polluters and providing legal aids to victims of environmental pollution. The ENGOs in this period were at the forefront of public opinion mobilization. Coincidently, journalists featured prominently in the environmental campaigns and environmental NGO scene, with many being NGO leaders themselves, unlike environmental activism elsewhere such as in Russia  or in China more recently. Chinese media that were liberalized by the market competition, in combination with the emergence of the new media on the internet, including social media, provided a space for critical reports and lively debates. This mobilization was based on the internet but involved a broad base online and offline interactions. Characteristic of the contentious public sphere was the mobilizations leading to the “public opinion incidences” in which national discussions and debates drew the broad attention of the public.
Many environmental issues such as air pollution, dam building, food safety, species conservation, and biotechnology are technically complex and uncertain. The production and communication of scientific knowledge and relevant information is crucial for the public mobilization around these issues. ENGOs, the media, public intellectuals, and internet opinion leaders were key to the production and mobilization of such knowledge in environmental contentions. In the well-known public campaigns around the air polluting particle PM 2.5, for example, diverse actors including the US Ambassy, outspoken business tycoons and public opinion leaders, tuned in netizens, and devoted journalists backed up by scientists and experts together drove up the “public opinion incidences” that forced the government to respond to the pollution crisis.
A similar but more contentious case of public mobilization occurred around China’s biosafety regulations. China joined the Cartagena Protocol and implemented a precautionary system of regulations on agriculture GMOs in the 2000s; however, a strong developmental coalition across the state, business, and bioscience communities continued to push for the deregulation. It was the prolonged anti-GMO movement across Chinese society that kept the commercial development of GMOs off the government agenda for two decades.
Biotechnology safety regulations are highly technical and controversial. In the 1990s the Chinese perceived GMOs in highly positive light even though they had no practical understanding of its risks and controversies. Thanks to dedicated Greenpeace campaigns, a lively media environment, active lawyers and citizen groups, and even certain substate actors, Chinese public opinion shifted from ignorance, indifference or even support to an overwhelming opposition to agricultural GMOs in the 2000s. A key function of Greenpeace and its allies was an epistemic community. They collected, compiled, translated, and published scientific findings and policy research regarding GMOs; they fed information to the empathetic journalists, government officials, and policy communities. Their messages were quickly picked up by a keen media audience and amplified by the thriving online media outlets. At the peak of the anti-GMO campaigns, debates by popular celebrities, citizen protests, and lawsuits drove the GMO safety to the top three most concerning issues in national surveys..
Political crackdown and the end of the contentious public spheres
.The operation of NGOs and its political environment changed drastically in the 2010s. To be sure, with a neoliberal view of social welfare regimes, China had come to accept the legitimacy of non-governmental sectors for social service provision. As China eventually settled on its formal legislation on NGOs and foundations, its view of civil society turned, however, from a cautious positivity to a deep suspicion and even rejection. Civil society, for example, was listed as one of the seven concepts that shouldn’t be mentioned in higher education curriculum in the 2013 central party directive.  The Chinese government was fearful of the Colour Revolution, and suspicious of the alleged secret agendas of NGOs to bring such regime challenges to home. In this context, foreign NGOs and their funding have become a source of national security risk. China issued a draconian Foreign NGOs Management Law in 2016, under which foreign NGOs had to register with the Ministry of Public Security. Prior to this, China had already tightened control over the domestic NGO’s acceptance of oversea funding since 2010, basically cutting off international funding for domestic NGOs.
Political development in broader civil society also underpinned these trends. The operational environment for the public sphere contention quickly changed. Within a decade, China cracked down on liberal-oriented media, arrested civil rights lawyers, attacked critical public intellectuals and internet opinion leaders, and ramped up surveillance and broad-based censorship.
The culmination of these factors led to the decline of the contentious public sphere, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s second term in 2017..
III. Public participation in the new era
Evolving state strategies
.Certainly, the scope of public participation is wider than NGO activism and public opinion incidences. For instance, the majority environmental protests in China were isolated and went on unnoticed, while some escalated into riots. Citizens can still contact the authority through environmental hotlines, and participation in public hearings and environmental impact assessments are ensured through legal provisions.  The tightening political control did not eliminate all avenues of participation.
Nevertheless, quite paradoxically, the party state has stepped up its efforts to raise public awareness and encourage public engagement in environmental governance, albeit through more controlled channels. How do we explain this seeming inconsistency? While civil society is increasingly viewed in a negative light, the party state still needs public support for effective governance and legitimacy. Moreover, public supervision and mobilization for campaigns serves important organizational purposes. In China’s political economy, as the central government’s environmental pursuit does not align with local cadres’ interest, the local compliances are problematic. The case of illegal building of luxurious villas in the important conservation area of Qinling mountain range is telling: the party secretary XI Jinping had to write six letters to the local government to rectify this problem before any effective action was taken on the ground. Public supervision, under necessary control, can fill in this gap, solving the party state’s principle-agent problems. Additionally, letting the public vent their grievances allegedly defuses public discontent. Thus, when the Chinese state gives increasing priority to ecological civilization, it actually needs more public participation than before.
To promote the desired public engagement, the party state strengthens environmental science communication and public information disclosure and nudges the public to file complaints and reporting on violations of environmental regulations.
The Chinese government has paid increasing attention to the issues of science literacy in environmental protection. Since the 11th Five Year Plan （2006-2011） environmental science communication (or popularization) has become a component of major national science and environmental protection planning in China.  For the ongoing 14th FYP (2021-2026), the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) issued a separate FYP on environmental science communication with detailed strategies, targets, actions, and funding support.
The Chinese public exposure to biodiversity information has also grown. In the lead up to the COP15 in Kunming in 2021, the Chinese public had been bombarded with conservation-themed media programs and reports. Deemed a quintessential part of the party imperative to “tell the Chinese story,” this was not limited to China either, with a billboard in downtown Vancouver, Canada, for example, featuring video images of beautiful national parks in China around the same time.
Information disclosure is a bottleneck for public participation in environmental governance in China. Since 2003, China has issued a series of administrative measures on environmental information disclosures. However, the coverage of the regulations was too limited, the disclosure requirements were not clear, and the enforcement was poor. Since 2015, more than 15,000 heavy polluting enterprises have been required to disclose ‘real time’ pollution data every hour. Citizens can access these air and pollution data on websites or through small phone apps. MEE issued a revised version of the regulation in 2021, further tackling the challenges in information disclosure. .
Last but not least, the Chinese government relies on Internet and phone apps to conduct many administrative functions. While the e-portals make it easier for the public to access information and engage environmental activities, the government has also explicitly encouraged citizens to file complaints and inquiries through these digital channels. MEE set up communication channels for environmental complaints, including the 12369 hotlines but also the web version and Wechat version of portals for ecological and environmental complaints and reports. With 1.3 billion active users, an ‘app for everything’ portal like Wechat makes complaint filing just a click away for ordinary citizens..
New Mode of Public Participation
.Compared to the 1980s when conservation first started, China now is a more affluent society with a large middle-class population. The public engagement in conservation did not disappear after the civil society crackdowns but has taken on different characteristics.
While influential international ENGOs still remain active and important in China’s conservation scene, new locally grown NGOs, foundations, and networks have emerged to take more centre stage. And many domestic organizations and foundations come from the private sector. The Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) and Paradise Ecological Conservation Foundation, for example, were set up by Chinese billionaires and have been active in funding extensive conservation projects and grassroots organizations. The top fintech companies such as Alibaba and Tencent both created their own foundations for environmental protection.
One consequence of the rise of domestic foundations and their support of NGOs is that it tends to shift the NGO functions “heavily towards social service provision and away from the more politically critical, society-facing functions of civic engagement and public expression.” This market logic worked hand in hand with the political control and crackdown of civil society actors. Instead of leading the public mobilization for environmental campaigns, ENGOs now engage in policy making relying more on expertise in science research and grassroots conservation practice. Many serve the role of an epistemic community for policy decisions. Their activities are more professionally oriented.
The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), for instance, makes a significant impact with its extensive data sets on air pollution and water pollution, as well as its green supply chain index and, more recently, a corporate climate change performance index. In the early 2010s IPE led a campaign against the Apple company, including issuing two special reports about heavy metal pollution problems of its supplying companies in China. IPE continues to build its data capacity to engage the public and expose polluting corporations today but hasn’t involved itself in direct campaigns thereafter.
Established ENGOs also endeavour to develop new professional expertise. As the recent revision of the Environmental Protection Law allows non-state actors to engage public interest lawsuits, flagship ENGOs such as All-China Environmental Federation, an established GONGO, and Friends of Nature pivoted to environmental public interest litigation. Friends of Nature has built a legal team and by the end of 2021, it filed 55 environmental lawsuits, 44 out of which were accepted for trials. Since 2013, it waged a 7-year long lawsuit to stop a hydropower project on the grounds of protecting the green peacock, an endangered foul species endogenous to China. 
The prevalence of communication tech has enabled new types of citizen activism, virtual volunteerism being one of them. I use virtual volunteerism to refer to conservation volunteerism that is delegated by citizens and consumers to professional organizations. In a sense, it is similar to writing a check to Greenpeace in the western context, but the delegation is done through virtual portals; and more importantly, people who delegate also do more than check writing. Smart phone apps are popular as a powerful tool to engage the huge number of users. This includes the Ant Forest, a widely used mini program in Alipay, one of the top two E-payment service in China. It uses a credit system to modify individual behaviours for environmental public goods. App users are rewarded with different conservation activities done on their behalf such as tree planting in the desert areas, in exchange for eco-friendly daily activities such as recycling or using shared bikes. Compared to civil society mobilizations in the contentious public sphere, E-volunteerism is more individual based with less horizontal connections.
Meanwhile citizens are encouraged to report on violations of environmental regulations. In addition to the old-fashioned letters and visits for complaints, the ready availability of online venues, especially the smart phone apps make it easier for the public to lodge a complaint. Recently, one unusual trend in the environmental complaints is to grant monetary rewards for reporting on ecological and environmental illegal activities. MEE issued a directive in 2020, giving detailed instructions on how to implement the reward system. Provincial and local governments followed up with implementing measures in a formal policy. Shanghai and Beijing, for example, both issued their own implementing directives in 2021.  There were 13,870 cases of reporting that were rewarded in 2020, and the total amount of the reward reached RMB 7,190,000, approximating US$ 1 million. Both the case number and total amount of rewards went up significantly than the previous year.
The Chinese public hasn’t become less involved in nature as a result of the E-participation. After “discovering nature” , the public has been engaging nature in active ways, including nature tourism and more recently nature education. In particular, nature schools have mushroomed since the mid-2010s, raising potential nature stewardship in participating parents and children for the future. Citizen scientists’ movement has also been promoted, drawing bird watchers and other urban residents to contribute to nature research..
National Parks and Protected Areas Reform
.China’s recent reforms in national parks and protected areas serve as examples of new trends of public participation. The reform was framed as a “top-level institutional design” thus excluding non-elite/expert engagement from the start. How can the ordinary people possibly understand complex top-level institutional designs such as those being made in the recent national park reforms? Some policy experts I interviewed in Beijing often asked such rhetorical questions, in genuine sincerity.
Top experts from prestigious research institutions, NGOs, and think tanks are tapped and consulted.  A few National Parks research institutes were created in this process, providing research and professional services to the ongoing reform. The general public was not particularly involved emotionally or intellectually. When the pilot national parks were close to completion, the government ran an online national survey, asking the public to vote for their ideal national park sites. Over a million people voted within a few days after the survey was launched. However, the results were never publicly announced, nor were there any details about how the government made any decisions to honour the public’s choice.
ENGOs have actively involved themselves at the grassroots level in the reform. There were around 40 reported NGOs involved in the construction of the first National Park, Sanjiangyuan (the three-river head) National Park, including for example, WWF, Shanshui Nature Conservation Centre, Global Environmental Institute (GEI), and some local NGOs. These NGOs used their expertise to fill in the gap that the newly created national park administration was not equipped to tackle such as species monitoring, environmental education training, traditional knowledge protection, community livelihood protection, etc..
IV. Biodiversity governance in the new era
.As a result of the evolving political environment and social context in last decade, the mode of public participation has shifted toward a combination of expert consultation, professional engagement, citizen science and education, virtual volunteerism, and individual complaints and reports.
In fact, the public access to scientific information related to the environment and ecology has been considerably improved over last decade. Environmental science has been well-developed thanks to the decades of international exchange and state cultivation in China, and in an overwhelmingly majority cases it develops in the public domain. Chinese citizens are increasingly exposed to public science regarding conservation issues; environmental information disclosure is more institutionalized and integrated; and digital technology provides more venues for access and participation.
The new mode of public participation suits the party’s needs in many regards. As China takes ecological conservation more seriously, the professional engagement and expert consultation becomes critical for its technocratic green reforms. With a population that accepts the party’s agenda for ecological civilization, the state can reinforce its legitimacy and draw the public support to overcome bureaucratic and social resistance. The campaigns for urban garbage recycling in 2019 show how the state still relies on the mobilization of the public for the policy implementation. At the peak of the campaign, all garbage collecting sites in residential areas were guarded by volunteers and community workers day and night to ensure sorting was correctly done. The party state has gained some leverage by leaning on individual reporting in solving principle-agent problems without the risk of protests and political instability associated with a contentious and networked civil society. Driving citizens to individualized channels on digital platforms, the state can easily track and control individuals if they cross the line.
But many of the previous channels for public dissemination and mobilization of knowledge and information were closed off. The previous alliances between NGOs, substate actors, activists, journalists, and public have significantly weakened, if not utterly broken down. The public discourse has become more rigid and less reflective and productive for better governance. Direct consultations with the public have become less substantive and more for window dressing. Even if mobilizations do occur on social media, they are often short-lived and easy to target.
At the height of the national celebration of COP15, stories of wild elephants roaming a few hundred miles out of their habitats in Yunnan made global headlines. China demonstrated a praiseworthy publicity strategy, providing support and guidance along their migratory journey while livestreaming the elephants on social media. When it came to the questions about their unusual migration, however, it formed a celebratory narrative about the overpopulation of elephants as a result of recent successful conservation efforts.  Most experts called on to the Chinese media nevertheless complied with these dominant state narratives with only extremely lone voices presenting dissenting views concerning the over development of the elephant habitat in and around the elephant reserves.
Another recent case of potential contention occurred in March 2023 when a short video went viral in social media. In the video, a 64-year-old man knelt on the ground and cried out for help. He claimed that the tree farm he spent twenty years cultivating in the arid dessert was cut off from water supplies due to a new development plan for coal mining nearby. Hundreds and thousands of comments and reposting showed that the public was outraged by the local corruption and greed over the noble cause of afforestation. Tree planting is essential to China’s conservation and climate strategy, but the implementation of afforestation has been utterly ignorant of ecological science and local conditions. Was the monocultural tree farm suitable for a Northwest province known for its dry climate and worsening desertification? Who would protect local farmers when development plan overrides everything? This viral story could have triggered a real discussion on China’s reforestation policy and led to change. However, the discussions faded quickly without many follow-up ripples.
The two cases demonstrate the potential and limitations of the new mode of public participation. The good news is that in the oppressive speech environment, there are still dissident voices, and the public is tuned in to biodiversity problems, maybe more than ever before. The bad news is that informed national discussions did not take off in either case. The media environment has changed, the public opinion leaders were silenced, and the experts are increasingly reluctant to speak their minds in public.
While the world is dazzled by China’s leading positions in climate change diplomacy and technology development, China has also been undertaking major transformations, if not a revolution, of its natural landscapes and biodiversity governance. It targets “the mountains, waters, forests, farmlands, lakes, grasslands, and deserts as one integrated system.” The political geographer Emily Yeh warns that the national natural infrastructure is coming to China. In its wake, local landscapes will be changed and many grassroot projects will face demolition. And the calculative tools and technocratic nature are to obscure the political nature of the transformative process. My piece sketches out the changing landscapes of public participation at the science-politics interface in this process, but more time is needed to find out how the dynamics play out when the grand schemes of ecological civilization touch the ground.
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About the author
Postdoc Research Associate, Lau China Institute, King’s College London