Social Media a Boon for Environmentalism in China?

After recent protests in Shifang highlighted the increasingly important role of social media in “mass incidents” in China, Greenpeace’s Monica Tan ponders what the web might mean for environmental activism. From The Diplomat:

The protesters in Shifang were quick to present themselves as nothing but concerned citizens.Yet their awareness of just how to achieve this seems to indicate an encouraging shift in NIMBY [not in my back yard] protests from the past. For example, in covering the protests Reuters quoted Zeng Susen, who runs a small guest house and restaurant: “We don’t oppose the government, but they must explain the risks involved in a project like this, and they didn’t.”

“In Shifang and other recent environmental protests we’re not only simply seeing demands that a project close down or move away, but calls for openness, transparency and participation,” says Greenpeace East Asia’s Head of Toxics campaigner Ma Tianjie. By opening up the dialogue, Ma believes that governments and citizens can move away from a zero-sum game where you either build the project, or not. This sophistication seems to indicate that China’s children are growing up and banging on the door so that they can be brought to the decision-making table.

“In other countries you can expect a detailed environmental impact report to be released well ahead of construction commencing. There might also be numerous hearings, with the community involved, and ideally given the power to veto. This is totally absent in China. By law only an abridged version of the impact assessment is required, and with so little information it’s virtually irrelevant,” says Ma.

And here in lies a vital problem. While the era of social media assisted environmental protests may be highly effective in bringing together large numbers of people for a swift campaign with one clear demand, how will it manage to force China to make the kind of complicated, structural change that these protesters are quickly becoming savvy enough to realize is necessary?

[Editor’s note: This post was changed to correct Monica Tan’s name. We apologise for the error.]


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