Addressing the Gap between Rhetoric and Reality in China's Air Pollution Control
Why Civil Society Is Essential

by Isabel Hilton
April 28, 2014

This essay by Isabel Hilton, the editor of, is part of the roundtable “China’s Air Pollution Problems.”

Every industrial revolution in history has produced toxic effects. China’s industrial revolution is the most recent—and the most significant—case. Not only is it the biggest and fastest industrial revolution in history, with pollution on an unprecedented scale, but we also now understand how close we are to dangerous and unstoppable climate change, to which China is now the largest contributor by volume. We all have an interest, therefore, in rapid and effective action in China. Are there lessons in the experiences of other countries that might help Beijing clean up, while continuing to develop?

One obvious lesson is that no government has succeeded in cleaning up the environment without the assistance of its citizens. In most countries, the pressure to address pollution originated with people who suffered its effects directly. Active citizens formed campaigning groups and enlisted the help of the press, the public, and the law to work for the necessary regulation and legislation. To mobilize effectively, such groups benefitted from funding, access to information, a robust legal system, and a relatively responsive government.

Some of these conditions apply in China: environmental NGOs now number in the tens of thousands, there is legislation and regulation on access to information and public participation, and there is increasing pressure on the authorities to publish environmental data, particularly on air quality. More than 170 cities in China now publish real-time air quality data online, a huge jump from just two years ago. [1]

But despite these advances, China’s environmental conditions continue to deteriorate. The gap between rhetoric and reality is partly explained by some key weaknesses across a range of factors, which, if not addressed, will continue to impede the government’s effectiveness.

The first is that its laws, regulations, and speeches notwithstanding, the Chinese government itself does not yet prioritize environmental protection over other policy objectives. 2013 brought repeated episodes of severe air pollution and growing public concern over water and soil pollution, but despite Premier Li Keqiang’s recent declaration of a “war on pollution,” government spending on environmental protection fell by almost 10% from 2012 to 2013. The budget report, delivered in March 2014 to China’s parliament, shows that in 2013 China spent 30 billion yuan ($4.9 billion) less than was budgeted for conservation and environmental protection. Spending in these areas declined from 199.84 billion yuan ($33 billion) in 2012 to 180.39 billion yuan ($30 billion) in 2013. [2] Many experts regard the full budgeted sum as already too little to achieve the government’s stated objectives, but underspending on environmental protection raises concerns about the government’s political will or capacity to implement policy.

Even a fully committed government is severely hampered in the design and execution of environmental protection without the support of a robust legal system, a vigorous press, and an active civil society. While some of these institutions nominally exist in China, all are severely constrained. China’s laws tend to be vague, and the legal system is both weak and limited by political control: a recent draft of the proposed environment law, for example, sought to restrict the right to litigate on environmental issues to one government-controlled organization, thereby depriving more independent civil society groups and individuals of access to the courts.

At the same time, Chinese civil society is weak and fragmented, largely as a result of government policies. While important work is being done in China by both international NGOs and a few world-class Chinese NGOs, grassroots environmental organizations are mostly small, under-capacitated, insecure, and short of funds.

They are also up against some extremely powerful vested interests. Grassroots activists are frequently targeted when they seek to constrain the behavior of local companies and local officials: cases such as that of Wu Lihong, an activist who campaigned peacefully for years to protect Lake Tai, only to be jailed in 2007 on charges of extortion, are not unusual. One notorious and typical recent case was that of Liu Futang, a retired official who drew attention to the destruction of the mangrove forests in Hainan Island. Liu was charged with “illegal business activities” after publicizing a protest against the construction of a coal-fired power station on the island; he was fined and given a three-year suspended sentence. [3]

Just as individuals can be intimidated, so too can vulnerable grassroots organizations. Most are not allowed to register officially and thus must operate without formal legal status or under the guise of businesses. They are not allowed to solicit funding from the public, and receiving foreign support can expose them to the risk of official sanction. While NGOs that help the government achieve specific objectives, such as the delivery of services to the elderly or hard-to-reach groups, are encouraged and funded through government contracts, organizations that challenge vested interests or highlight pollution problems that officials might wish to conceal can easily be subject to official pressure or closed down.

The problem this poses for the effective implementation of government policy was well illustrated recently by the complaints of China’s parliamentarians, who demanded to know why official figures seemed to show that China’s air quality was improving, when the lived experience suggested that it was getting worse. [4] The answer, they suggested, was fraud: an investigation by the Shandong Environmental Information and Monitoring Centre, covered in the Chinese press, discovered fraud both in the reporting and the collection of data. Big companies and public officials routinely falsify information to conceal pollution and avoid sanctions, but serious violators are rarely prosecuted or shut down.

Even when violators are caught and action is taken, the fines are derisory. China’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law has not been updated since 2000, and the maximum penalty that it sets for faking pollution data is only 50,000 yuan ($8,100). At that price, continuing to pollute and falsify figures is a more profitable course of action for major companies than cleaning up. Until the Chinese government gives enforcement agencies and the law real powers and backs them up with a confident civil society and a robust media, progress on environmental protection is likely to be disappointing

Isabel Hilton is the editor of, which is an independent, noncommercial, bilingual website devoted to high-quality research and debate on the environment.


[1] 179 Chinese cities agree to real-time disclosure of air quality,” Chinadialogue, January 16, 2014,

[2] ” Report on China’s central, local budgets.” Xinhua News Agency, March 15, 2014,

[3] Liu Jianqiang, “Environmentalist Liu Futang Found Guilty of ‘Illegal Business Activities,'” December 5, 2012,

[4] Li Keyong and Luo Bo, “China’s Parliamentary Delegates Attack Air Quality Fraud,” March 11, 2014,

This essay is from a roundtable organized by Claire Topal, Senior Advisor for International Health at NBR, for the Center for Health and Aging.