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China’s Bad Bet on the Environment

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
November 12, 2013
HBR Blog Network

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It was a moment for the Chinese people to savor. For nearly two years, they had called on Beijing to take action on its air pollution crisis. Websites exploded with pictures and data, documenting the terrifying health and economic costs of the pollution: a drop in life expectancy of 5.5 years in the country's heavily polluted north and an estimated $112 billion in labor and health care costs in 2005. Experts and citizens shared information, expressed views in polls, and demanded change. Finally, in September 2013, faced with mounting social discontent, Premier Li Keqiang announced a sweeping new plan to try to address the country's air quality problems.

Environmental activism in China is not new. For almost two decades, the environment has been at the forefront of civil society development. There are more than 3,500 formally registered environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — and at least that many un-registered — throughout the country. Chinese citizens routinely protest against local governments' environmental practices. In 2013, the environment surpassed illegal land expropriation as the largest source of social unrest in the country.

Despite this history of citizen activism, however, Premier Li Keqiang's policy announcement stands out as one of the first times that the central government has directly responded to popular pressure, and it may be one of the last for some time. It is far from certain that this victory for Chinese people power will be repeated in the near future.

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