environment, perceptions of

Western visions of China’s environment include streams meandering among soaring mist-cloaked peaks or bamboo forests filled with panda bears, exotic birds and the occasional Buddhist temple. The world’s third largest country in terms of area, China enjoys a diverse range of plant and animal life spread across a broad range of climates and geographic conditions. While the variety of climatic and geographical conditions are readily identifiable, China’s beauty and diversity of species are becoming harder to find. China has suffered human-induced environmental degradation since the early dynastic era when emperors strove to conserve and rejuvenate over-exploited forests and to control flooding. In the contemporary era, environmental degradation has accelerated due to a combination of rapid economic growth and an immense and growing population. In an effort to alleviate environmental degradation, the Chinese state is striving to heighten public environmental awareness. However, the public seems more interested in improved material well-being.
As with people throughout the world, Chinese citizens strive for better and more plentiful food, longer and healthier lives, more education for their children and additional material goods. In general, the public views environmental protection as an unaffordable luxury. Furthermore, surveys of Chinese environmental awareness conducted in the 1990s found that most people recognize the importance of environmental protection, but believe environmental protection is a state responsibility. As a result, while maintaining clean private spaces, most people admit to polluting public areas, expecting the state to clean up. This attitude may be partially attributed to the Communist planned economic management system that minimized citizen responsibility for activities utside their own homes.
The state is convinced that environmental protection is important to continued prosperity and growth.
However, it is no longer able to afford the spiralling cost of environmental clean-ups. In search of other environmental protection options, the state has tried to awaken public respect for the environment by requiring schools, businesses and government officials to study environmentalism and environmental protection. The state has also encouraged activist green groups to form and the mass media to expose polluters and praise environmentalists. These efforts have contributed to slowly increased environmental awareness among relatively well-educated and wealthy urbanites. However, in the countryside, home to 70 per cent of China’s population, the emphasis remains on obtaining material benefits. The attitude of Chinese environmental protection officials illustrates the immense challenge to improving environmental awareness and protection in China. Even many environmental protection officials believe that China must sacrifice the environment by exploiting natural resources in order to satisfy the public’s need and desire for material goods.
Ongoing efforts by the Chinese state will strengthen environmental awareness among Chinese citizens. However, if required to choose, for the foreseeable future the average citizen can be expected to favour a better living standard.
China Quarterly 156 (December 1998). ‘Special Issue: China’s Environment’.
Elvin, Mark and Liu, Ts’ui-jung (1998). Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smil, Vaclav (1993). China’s Environment Crisis. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe.
JONATHAN SCHWARTZ

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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