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«Media, Civil Society, and the Rise of a Green Public Sphere in China Guobin Yang and Craig Calhoun China Information 2007; 21; 211 DOI: ...»

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China Information http://cin.sagepub.com

Media, Civil Society, and the Rise of a Green Public Sphere in China

Guobin Yang and Craig Calhoun

China Information 2007; 21; 211

DOI: 10.1177/0920203X07079644

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Media, Civil Society, and Copyright © 2007, The Documentation and Research Centre for Modern China, Leiden University. Vol XXI (2) 211–236 [DOI: 10.1177/0920203X07079644] the Rise of a Green Public Sphere in China



Direct citizen voices are relatively absent from China’s public arena and seldom influence government policymaking. In early 2004, however, public controversies surrounding dam building on the Nu River prompted the Chinese government to halt the proposed hydropower project. The occurrence of such public debates indicates the rise of a green public sphere of critical environmental discourse. Environmental nongovernmental organizations play a central role in producing this critical discourse. Mass media, the internet, and “alternative media” are the main channels of communication. The emergence of a green public sphere demonstrates the new dynamism of grass-roots political change.

Keywords environment, green public sphere, civil society, media, internet Authors’ affiliation Guobin Yang is an associate professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures, Barnard College, New York, USA. Craig Calhoun is President of the Social Science Research Council, and professor of sociology, Columbia University, New York, USA.

According to media reports, China’s State Council halted the hydropower project being planned on the Nu River in Yunnan Province in April 2004.

The decision came after months of intense public debates. China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, reportedly cited “a high level of social concern” as an important reason for suspending the dam-building project (Ming Pao Daily, 2 April 2004). Such a reversal after public criticism has hardly been typical of the Chinese government—nor was the nature of the public criticism typical. In the first place, the public debate addressed policy. In contrast with the more common pattern, it was not simply the exposure of corruption or the suggestion that local officials deviated from the goals of the central Party and government. Second, a broad range of participants was involved in public discourse. This differentiated it from the “reportage” literature through which criticism flourished in the 1980s, for example, which typically 211

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Yang & Calhoun: The Rise of a Green Public Sphere in China Second, we argue that environmental NGOs provide the pivotal organizational basis for the production and circulation of this greenspeak. A greenspeak that promotes a new environmental consciousness does not fall from heaven, but has its advocates and disseminators. We focus on environmental NGOs both because they are relatively new and because they play a central role in producing greenspeak. Third, we analyze the media of the green sphere. Distinguishing among mass media, the internet, and “alternative media,” we argue that because these different types of media differ in social organization, access, and technological features, they influence the green sphere differently. Finally, we return to the case of the Nu River to illustrate the dynamics and functions of the emerging green sphere. In the conclusion, we discuss the implications of our analysis for understanding the sources of political change in China.

Green public sphere and greenspeak in China “Public sphere” is a controversial concept. Habermas initially defined it as “a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed.” Access to this domain is “open in principle to all citizens” who may “assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely.”5 Critics were quick to point out that Habermas’s version of the public sphere was a bourgeois sphere that in reality excluded certain categories of people (such as women) and was fraught with problems of social, economic, cultural, even linguistic inequality.6 In response, Habermas later recognized the internal dynamics of the public sphere, the possibility of multiple public spheres, as well as the conflicts and interactions among them.7 In China studies, the concept of the public sphere has similarly been controversial. It was initially used to explain the rise of the student movement in

1989.8 Then a symposium on “public sphere”/“civil society” in 1993 introduced an influential debate. Some scholars in the debate find civil society and public sphere in late imperial China;9 others argue that these concepts are too value-laden and historically specific for understanding Chinese realities.10 More recently, there has been a revival of interest among China scholars in civil society and public sphere. For example, it has been argued that these categories are pertinent to China because they emerged out of experiences of modernity which transformed China no less than the West.11 Others use a relaxed notion of the public sphere, adopting more neutral terms such as “public space” or “social space” or focusing on publics rather than the 213 Downloaded from http://cin.sagepub.com at COLUMBIA UNIV on July 31, 2007 © 2007 The Documentation and Research Centre for Modern China, Sinological Institute, Leiden University. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

China Information XXI (2)

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Yang & Calhoun: The Rise of a Green Public Sphere in China population and not others.16 Its main constituency consists of students, intellectuals, journalists, professionals, and other types of urbanites. For example, university student environmental associations are a main part of the movement. A nonstudent member-based organization such as Friends of Nature (FON) also draws its membership mostly from these urban groups.

Greenspeak gives these people, who tend to have more cultural capital than economic capital, a rhetoric for identifying themselves and their concerns in contrast to the dominance of a more crass economic rhetoric in society at large.

Third, in response to the ascendance of consumerism and materialism, greenspeak promotes new moral visions and practices. A central moral message is that environmentalism must be practiced as a new way of life. It promotes a new understanding of the relationship between humans and their natural environment, one that stresses human–nature harmony. A practical corollary of this view is that humans must treat nature and its flora and fauna with respect and kindness.17 It also promotes the vision of a new personhood. Practicing a green consciousness must start with oneself. If each and every person lives an environmentally friendly life, then the earth might be saved. A common personal practice is to reject the use of disposable consumer products (such as disposable chopsticks and shopping bags). These practices convey some sense of religiosity. They embody a search for more spiritual “meanings” in life—again, something that tends to be opposed to sheer economism. In this sense, the green discourse continues an opening up to “expressive individualism” in China over the last 20 years.

Yet the relationship between economism and environmental protection is also a source of dilemmas and personal perplexity. Reflecting the growing richness and diversity of current environmental discourse, these dilemmas are often openly discussed and shared. A good example comes from the publications of Green Camp, an unregistered NGO in Beijing. Each year since 2000, Green Camp has produced an informal publication featuring personal essays by participants in that year’s green camp activities. These personal stories demonstrate how China’s young environmentalists develop a deeper understanding of environmental issues by experiencing them first-hand and talking about their experience. One essay in the 2000 volume describes a small incident that happened to its author when he and a few other green campers were studying the feasibility of eco-tourism in Changbai Mountain.

He heard the following conversation between a fellow camper and an

employee of a local nature reserve protection station:


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A public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself. It is autotelic; it exists only as the end for which books are published, shows broadcast, Web sites posted, speeches delivered, opinions produced. It exists by virtue of being addressed [original emphasis].22 Warner’s description captures only half of what “a public” means. A public is not just an addressee, but also an addressor. It not only reads books, watches shows, reads internet posts, listens to speeches, and receives opinions, but also publishes books, produces shows, writes or responds to internet posts, delivers speeches (or partakes in conversations for that matter), and expresses opinions.

As mentioned previously, the publics of China’s green sphere consist of all citizens and civil society organizations involved in the production and consumption of greenspeak. Here we concentrate on the discourse-producing publics. These are again diverse and may include scientific communities, educational institutions, and a broad array of old and new social organizations.

We focus on environmental NGOs because they are the most distinctive and novel organizational base for the green public sphere.

In one of the first systematic analyses of this topic, Peter Ho shows that environmental NGOs in China cover a wide spectrum, from more or less independent NGOs to government-organized NGOs (GONGOs), student environmental associations, unregistered voluntary organizations, and NGOs that are set up “in disguise” in order to bypass the registration requirements and hide their true nature from the government’s view.23 A survey of university student environmental associations shows that as of April 2001, there were 184 student environmental associations.24 Nonstudent grass-roots environmental NGOs numbered about 100 as of 2003, not including the numerous GONGOs.25 According to a more recent Chinese news release, this number reached about 200 toward the end of 2006.26 Environmental NGOs are engaged in a broad range of activities, from public education and community building to research and advocacy. In these activities, they resort to all forms of media and public forums, including television, radio, newspapers, magazines, web sites, exhibits, workshops, and salons. As a result, these organizations become an important institutional base for bringing green issues into the public sphere. Many organizations publish newsletters and 217

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to this case later in the article. As Table 2 shows, the scope of these campaigns is wide-ranging. They include both moderate educational campaigns such as promoting Earth Day activities and more confrontational campaigns to boycott commercial products and challenge industrial projects.

To understand why environmental NGOs can organize such a broad range of activities in China’s constraining political context, it is essential to analyze why they have developed in the first place. We underscore three conditions.

First, the growth of environmental NGOs is part of a larger “associational revolution” in China.27 This has to do with many factors, including state decentralization and the government’s recognition of a third sector. Second, 219

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Yang & Calhoun: The Rise of a Green Public Sphere in China Mass media Mass media—newspapers, television, and radio—have enormous influences on the green public sphere. Since the 1990s, mass media coverage of environmental issues in China has greatly increased. Surveys conducted by Friends of Nature find that the average number of articles on environmental issues published in national and regional newspapers was 125 in 1994. This number rose to 136 in 1995 and 630 in 1999.30 The public campaigns listed in Table 2 were all covered by the mass media.

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