China’s Environmental Issues & Culture: Interview with Jingfang Liu

Jingfang Liu is an Associate Professor in the Communications Department at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Her paper, “China’s Green Public Culture: Network Pragmatics and the Environment”, co-authored with G. Thomas Goodnight, appeared in the International Journal of Communication in 2016. Green Public Culture “is an ensemble of communicative activities that come to exist in the push and pull of local, national, and international networks affecting material conditions and bio-ecologies. Such activities foster network pragmatics that function as ties connecting humans, nonhuman actors, and apparatus into productive work of a culture scaled at different levels.” Liu and Goodnight illustrate GPC as “an emergent, complex array of cultural spaces that continues to grow and invites ever-more inquiry.” They also map the terrains of China’s GPC by “identifying ongoing ties and relations among players, connections, media, actions, discourses, institutional relations, and cultural norms.”

Interview with Jingfang Liu:

Newsbud: What is network pragmatics and how did you come up with this idea?

Jingfang Liu: It’s a new term, me and my co-author invented it, we are still also trying to figure out what it means for us. It’s an interesting new concept that can help us explain the very complex things going on, especially in China. I have been studying environmental movements in China for the past ten years. My co-author Tom Goodnight is a very famous professor in the field of public spheres.

Newsbud: What was it like growing up in China for you?

Jingfang Liu: I was born in the 70s, and everybody was poor so we didn’t have a lot of material stuff to share, to use, or even to dispose of. We didn’t have so much plastic bags or packaging, it was different. I went to the United States to study in 1999 and I spent 13 years doing my Masters, PhD and worked before I came back. China is a totally different society now. When I left, it was not so much about consumer culture back then. When I first left China and went to the US, I thought, “Wow, there’s such a consumer culture here, everyone buys a lot of stuff!” In China, I told my mother, “Why didn’t you get rid of your old belongings? People are buying in the U.S., you should buy new stuff.”

Later, after several years, I realized that China is starting to look like the U.S., there is a consumer culture booming and my mother was purchasing new things. I told her to just stop buying. This is one example, because I was absent from China for a long time before the consumer culture was growing very rapidly here. In the past 10-20 years, it has grown so fast, and I think people who were born in this generation, especially post-90s, they didn’t experience what I experienced when I was little, when there was a scarcity of material stuff, so they don’t see a need. Part of the reason I came back to China is that a lot of the research I do is all about China. As a Chinese person, I’m naturally interested, from my area as a researcher and scholar, to try and understand what’s really happening in our society, and especially in the environmental area. What can I do as a Chinese person? If I would’ve stayed in the U.S. I would be having difficulties collecting data about what’s going on in China.

To this day, I think China has become the world’s #2 economic power in the world, and you see a country changing so fast, so your identity changes along with it. You kind of have to adjust yourself to what’s going on. My hometown is Beijing and it’s a city that’s still dear to my heart. It’s made of small alleys, small streets, a city that contains my friends. I used to live near the Temple of Heaven, which is a very famous leisure park in Beijing where I used to go and play. The Emperor used to go there in the ancient times. After coming back to China, I sort of felt like my hometown was not there anymore. While I was in the U.S. pursuing my studies, I went back to Beijing once every couple of years, so quite often. Every time I went back, many of the streets were widened and places I had once known were gone. There was a lot of modern construction and development going on.

In 2007, I did fieldwork with twenty environmental NGOs all over Beijing so I went to visit them. Every time I went out, I got lost. I just got so lost. I don’t know the roads anymore, it’s like my hometown doesn’t exist anymore. The physical part of my hometown exists only in my memories. Of course, I still have my friends and family there but it’s kind of made me wonder, where is my hometown? It’s now notoriously famous for smog problems, which I don’t want to see. When people mention Beijing, they joke about the smog. And I think the same problem happens with a lot of other people. Even though some of my students came from a small town, in the past twenty years there has been so much development all over China. Maybe they will find the same thing, the same reality, as I do. Maybe their hometown has changed drastically. As a Chinese person, you go through all of the rapid economic developments, so part of you wants to go forward as a society, but then part of you doesn’t want to go forward, because modern development brings us many problems such as the environment. You want to have something old to go back to. You are kind of still searching for what that is. I’m trying to help my students see the connection between nature, people, and society. I do what I can to make more people realize what was lost there.

Newsbud: What do you think China can do more than anything to help quicken the process of getting back to a ‘greener’ country?

Jingfang Liu: I think the good thing about China is the central government is very determined to save the environment, to cure environmental problems. Much of the time, the problem is at the local government level, or the central government has certain laws. Since January 1st, 2015 for example, there’s a new law which establishes that NGOs can sue any parties who damage the environment, or anybody can do that, so that’s quite an advancement for China.

The smog problem is quite heavy so the government is quite determined to solve the issue, but meanwhile, they’re faced with the issue of economic development, of feeding a huge population of the world, so it has the dilemma of having to decide which is more important. For example, you can help with the smog problem in Northern China by closing many factories during smog seasons, but then you’ll have tons of people who are unemployed who can’t make a living, so what do you do as a government? It’s hard for the government to balance between economic and environmental goals. Local government sometimes don’t fully implement existing laws for different reasons, because local leaders award based on economic standards not environmental standards, so often times they put environmental protection behind. In general, the government’s working on this and are realizing the urgency of the situation.

Excerpt from Liu’s paper:

In 2011, the Beijing-based Daerwen Nature Quest Agency and several other provincial nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) initiated the “I Monitor the Air for My Country” campaign. They called for volunteer citizens to keep a daily air quality log and track safety. These efforts pressured the central government to release official particulate matter (PM) 2.5 data daily. Unable to ignore urban experiences, officials spoke out: “This pollution is leading to much public worry,” party leader Liu Jigang observed of the heavy smog in urban districts. Flights were cancelled on gloomy days, increases in lung cancer rates were noted, and controversy over measurement accuracy flourished. “Is Beijing’s smog getting worse?” the press asked. “Smogpocalypse” is here, China’s headlines read in 2013. True, the press pictured dirty air, even while passing along optimistic public policy pronouncements. Stories featured pictures of city landscapes, iconic monuments, and masked citizens, all shrouded in white. To these front-page images was added health threat information depicting day-by-day the floating hazards.

China’s national and local environmental agencies responded. Smog monitors were set up by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in 2012. In 2014, the director of the National Development and Reform Commission’s health program spoke of the spread of these measuring initiatives as a “watershed moment” that would help local officials and citizens “to target their concerns and focus attention on the big problems“. New local commitments followed as city governments acted. For instance, China Daily headlined an effort by Shanghai in 2015 to cut PM 2.5 by 20% from the level in 2013, with an investment of 100 billion Yuan in environmental protection. A daily PM 2.5 index was provided to the public to inform choices for outdoor activity. Some wore masks publically as personal protection. Intended as safety measures, data and masks fused to signal and pace environmental stress. To address air quality, China adopted a cap-and-trade policy, with cost incentives different from its European counterparts. Neoliberal cap-and-trade efforts to fight pollution are subject to gaming and price manipulation and therefore remain controversial in the West. It is unclear whether China’s efforts will succeed. In Beijing, however, it was reported that the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide in the air declined from 7% to 4% over 2014.

There is a very famous documentary called Under the Dome by this Chinese former journalist, Chai Jing. It was out in 2015, it got circulated online, so it’s the first documentary that talks about what smog is, what causes it, and what the solutions are. It points to the parties that are responsible for causing the smog, but unfortunately it was banned in China after two years and is still banned, but in two days, there were huge numbers of Chinese people who viewed the film and got an education. Just by this one event - it’s very interesting. We start to have people like Chai who brings people’s attention to environmental issues.

Excerpt from Liu’s paper:

In March 2015, air quality urgencies were publicized dramatically by Under the Dome, an independent documentary that identified the causes and dangers of smog in China. The producer, Chai Jing, was a former state news anchor, hostess, and advocate of 5Km Green Commuting in Beijing. She spoke sharply in TED-talk fashion on air pollution. Her moving personal account spoke of fear and directed blame toward industrial polluters. Videos of the documentary were posted on Weibo, Youku, Tencent, and even YouTube quickly. Millions watched online. The high-quality video produced a sophisticated blend of personal testimony with scary visual scenes. The “talk” was timed fortuitously with China’s two key meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Could it have been a government trial balloon? The film “may not be independent” was as far as the speculation went. Professors, scientists, and experts “discussed the validity of Ms. Chai’s arguments, the relationship between business practices and pollution and government oversight of air quality issues”. Debates followed. At a press conference, Premier Li Kegiang vowed publicly that the government would do more to enforce laws.

People are still enjoying their material life until they are faced with the issue of, for example, every morning I check the PM 2.5 level on my phone, the first thing when I wake up and I decide whether I need to wear a mask or not when I go out. More and more people are doing that these days. I have a six year old daughter and I’m really worried about her health, so I put her in a mask even though she doesn’t like it.

Newsbud: You describe your old hometown as completely changed as a place. Are there still traces of the old culture there?

Jingfang Liu: I’m trying to think about what the culture means for us anymore. I think it’s like the U.S., for example, how Christmas is taken over by the commercial industries - the same thing is happening in China. We’re going to have the Chinese New Year soon, and it has become quite commercial as well. You see the advertisements, etc. I think in general the Chinese people are facing this crisis of searching for what culture is, where it is they can find culture. There are more people who are trying to believe in religion like Buddhism, Christianity; there’s such a religious culture recently in China. A Confucianism school has also been established by different universities; I think the government has been trying to promote culture in different ways. In such a modern society, it’s hard for me to really experience the culture. We have something of a ritualistic cultural event, for example, during the Chinese spring festival, a cultural fair happening in parks and different venues, but in Beijing it’s so crowded! It’s hard to take my family to it because of this, you wouldn’t be able to see anything. There are other events I could be forgetting, but I would have to think hard about that.

There’s a theory that modernity makes us externalize nature, so we don’t think nature is part of us anymore. Modernity places material things as above people. We don’t internalize nature anymore. If we say that there’s a slogan in China, ‘we protect the environment’ - even this slogan, there’s nothing wrong with it but ‘we protect the environment’ means the environment is not part of us, it’s something fragile that needs our protection. Actually, we should say that we should respect nature because nature is mother nature. It’s above us, it’s part of us, so there is a huge problem with modern development all over the world.

Newsbud: Is the Chinese internet community and how people communicate within it different from other places in the world?

Jingfang Liu: I just wrote a little article in Chinese where I traced the environmental NGOs website - their online public space - I compare what’s happening in 2007 to 8 years later, and I was looking for what kind of green discourse that I can discover. In the environmental area, I feel that most of the language is not as active as it’s supposed to be, as what you would imagine it is. A lot of the discussions about environmental issues are very polite but not active, and it’s driven by philosophical ideas. It always points to people as the party who we should blame, not the specific party who actually causes these environmental problems. They have ethical, philosophical discussions about the issues, and point to all of us: everyone should take responsibility. It’s not the heated political discussion as you would see regarding environmental issues in the West. There’s a difference, which is interesting. Something that applies to other online discussions and issues is, for some issues there are very heated political discussions - not polite at all. If you are Chinese, you expect to see a vibrant discussion taking place within the framework compared to what you see ten years ago in the online world in China.

Newsbud: Which websites do you frequently go on that you would like to recommend?

Jingfang Liu: If you aren’t familiar with WeChat, it has a huge influence on Chinese society. It’s kind of like Facebook, so many people resort to WeChat for news, for discussion, or anything, because you can have a friend’s circle. For example, I am connected with people who have an interest in environmental issues, so we will have private discussions. There’s also a newspaper called Southern Weekend that has an environmental section, and I follow several NGOs. There is a famous one called Friends of Nature, or you can go to or Part of my research is on green technologies, so I think this online space is bringing more and more environmental impacts. I actually did my PhD on “green IT” - everything we write online doesn’t just disappear. It goes to the physical servers, and if you have more and more information stored in them, it’s very expensive to maintain them. They are having an increasing amount of environmental influence as we develop this crazy online world. We’re also damaging the environment in the process, but most people don’t realize it.

Newsbud: Cyberspace has a real tangible effect on public space, then?

Jingfang Liu: Yes, cyberspace, the public space, and the natural space are all linked. It doesn’t mean that if we read books online, that saves the environment - it depends on the degree, maybe you aren’t saving the environment if you are using too much online space. There is a double-sided effect. If you write one line of text, and it stays there, that requires a physical machine to maintain it 24/7, using energy that creates environmental burdens. On the software side, there are electronic waste issues. In South China, there is a large amount of e-waste sites, and people deal with that. It’s imported from abroad and it has a negative impact on people’s health.

Environmental issues are just so complex, so profound; they’ve expanded into other social areas. There’s a discussion about using air purifiers in primary schools in Beijing (some schools are able to do this while others are not) which has become a set of ‘educational fairness’ problems, or education justice problems. Also, some rich people in Beijing cannot stand the bad air, so they are immigrating to other countries like the U.S. Since they are wealthy, they can do this, but for poor people, they do not have the means. They have to stay there and survive, so environmental problems have become class problems and public housing issues. The environment is a standard with which to judge whether a society is in good condition. It’s not about nature. It’s about how we treat, how we perceive it. The way you treat nature will eventually reflect back onto that society and its people.

The good thing is, there is always hope, because it’s not like we don’t want to save the environment. It’s not like people want to ruin the environment, or that the government doesn’t want to put environmental protection as a priority. The problems are the implementation: what should we do and how should we do it? Whether we can forget about some parts of our luxury life, whether we can use less stuff, this implementation is going to take a long time. People are realizing this, and different organizations and the government are working on this together.

When I was in my 20s, I went from Beijing to the Silk Road in Northern China. I went to Xi’an, the ancient capital, and Xinjiang, where there is a lake called the Lake of Heaven. I went through desert, I couldn’t go to Kashgar. I went there in 1996 and they didn’t have a railway station yet. There is a place called the Flaming Mountain, and it was just so beautiful. Under the Flaming Mountain, there is this old woman making Muslim-style pancakes on a stove made of stone in a little stand. It’s interesting how the food is made, and then it’s so delicious. The Silk Road, the Lake of Heaven, and then the Flaming Mountain, those areas are some of my favorite. I do plan to do some research whenever I do get the time to look into how these ethnic groups and ethnic cultures regard nature, to see how our green public culture extends there.

I would also like to mention that my wonderful experience in the US, being exposed to real nature-visiting national parks, travelling through many natural sceneries and spots such as my favorite place, Alaska, and experiencing all sort of green cultures-that played a key role in changing my perception about nature and society. I then began attending to China’s environmental problems. If I had never been to the U.S., I would be like many other Chinese people and would not be doing what I do, so I’m very appreciative of the natural world and land  in the U.S., I’m thankful for the life-changing experiences I had there.

Newsbud: Here are some other sources on the loss of traditional Chinese culture in China today:

In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone’

Shanghai Culture Lost

Survey: People Are Losing Touch With Tradition

Loss of traditions, Western inroads lamented in China

Rural Chinese society fractured by loss of traditional ways of life

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, lives in Northern Virginia and is currently studying writing and rhetoric at George Mason University. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013.

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  1. victor friese says:

    It sounds like people in China are afriad to talk about the environment for fear of being shut down and sent to prison for “causing problems”.

    Do yhey use psychiatry to punish dissidence in China? You last article talked about that sort of issue. Is China one of the places where whistle blowing is seen as horrible?

    I never will understand governments. They have this huge problem, but they are going to let it go on and on until it all goes to crap. Makes no sense.

  2. victor friese says:

    Oh, and that event a few years ago, where there was that huge explosion, what happenend surrounding that? It was some sort of over filled chemical storage warehouse. Or a warehouse being used to store chemicals when it shouldn’t have been.

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