Carnegie Mellon University


December 17, 2021

Grassroots Environmental Activism Is One Answer to China’s Climate Commitments

By Pearce Edwards, Daniel Arnon, and Handi Li

On November 4, 2021 the Chinese government released a white paper detailing its past accomplishments and objectives for combatting climate change. Among other goals, the Chinese Communist Party government pledged to reach “peak carbon” output by 2030 and to create a carbon neutral economy by 2060.

The Chinese commitments drew criticism from world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, who called them “disappointing.” Furthermore, an unexpected energy shortage in recent months led the Chinese government to call for a compensatory, short-term increase in coal production. With these crosswinds – international pressure to decarbonize and domestic pressure to cheapen energy costs – will China honor even its “disappointing” public commitments?

One possible answer is the role of grassroots environmental activism. In the western world, pressure originates from grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate. In China, environmental protests receive comparatively less attention. Yet we know from scholarship on regimes like China that governments are often responsive to citizens who demand the provision of public goods such as a healthy climate – and threaten to protest if their demands are not met.

Our own research suggests a pathway by which the Chinese government could make good on its recent climate plans. Drawing on news reports of a 2012 environmental protest against discharge from a paper factory in Qidong, Jiangsu, we designed and fielded a survey experiment administered to 2,428 Chinese respondents from July 25 to August 5, 2021. In the experiment, we showed respondents a vignette describing the protests – in which local citizens entered a government building to denounce local officials who permitted the project – but with random variation in how the citizens participating in the protest were described. Some respondents saw the protest labeled as one which should be given “high attention” by the Chinese public and which called for “listening” to the protesters’ demands. Other respondents saw a vignette focusing on how the protests were disorderly and unacceptable.

We also varied whether respondents saw a description of the protest from a source affiliated with state media or from a scholar. While some scholars in China have connections to the government, many are independent and offer differing opinions on issues such as environmental damage. We expected that government sources would be more effective – when calling for high attention and listening to protesters – at generating respondents’ sympathy for the protesters’ actions. For example, Pan, Shao, and Xu find Chinese state media shifts citizens’ attitudes by roughly one-third of a standard deviation in the direction of the media’s message. This is consistent with other research that finds state media manipulates citizens’ attitudes on a range of topics on which it comments.

Our results were surprising.

First, while calling for greater attention to citizens’ demands and for listening to them increased respondents’ sympathy with the protesters (see Figure 1), this did not extend to greater opposition to the environmentally damaging project in Qidong. Respondents who read more accommodating language about the protesters were no more likely to support the cancellation of the project than respondents who read accusatory language about the protesters. Furthermore, respondents who read accommodating language were no more likely to support accountability of the officials responsible for the project – suggesting that even those who agree with criticism of local officials’ environmental decisions may not result in more responsiveness.

Figure 1: Different forms of support for environmental movement by treatment group

Figure 1: Different forms of support for environmental movement by treatment group.

Second, we found no difference in these effects depending on which source provided the report about the protests. That is, state media sources were no more effective than a presumably independent scholar in calling for action on environmental issues. This result contrasts with previous studies that suggest official media sources are influential shapers of public opinion.       

Our survey results led to several conclusions. First, the Chinese public shows some baseline support for reducing environmental degradation domestically. Indeed, 65 percent thought environmental protection, especially pollution, was a very serious issue in China. Second, pro-environmentalist messages can increase support for the movement, even if the messages do not increase citizens’ opposition to specific environmentally damaging development projects. These messages increased citizens’ support for protesters by about 0.25 on a five-point scale. Third, both government and independent sources in China are capable of shaping public opinion on the environment.

Above all, our findings suggest that Chinese citizens are concerned about the environment and follow – within limits – the cues of both scholarly and government sources on the topic. Citizens will do this even given the specter of potential social instability that could result from environmental protest. This support for environmentalism, like the nationalism of China’s foreign policy, presents no impediment to China fulfilling its international climate commitments.

Pearce Edwards is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University

Daniel Arnon is an Assistant Professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona.

Handi Li is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Emory University.