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Bottom-Up Environmental Revolution -- in China

pollutioninchina.jpgAlthough the presence of officials such as Pan Yue in the Chinese bureaucracy is a small sign of hope, China remains an ever-worsening environmental disaster. Air and water pollution still choke the country, brought on by barely-regulated industries. Cities are being rebuilt to better-accomodate automobiles, and China is now the number two importer of oil in the world, beating out Japan, behind only the United States.

But there are signs that some citizens of China are starting to take environmental matters into their own hands. Two recent stories illustrate the breadth of what that can mean: urban dwellers buying and using electric bikes made by small start-ups in defiance of city leaders and the national auto industry; and a peasant uprising over industrial pollution. Read on for details.

IEEE Spectrum is a technologist journal, but it very often has articles of great interest to worldchangers; "China's Cyclists Take Charge," posted today on their website, is an excellent example.

With all of the attention paid to the growing number of automobiles in China, it's worth noting that over ten million three electric bikes and scooters will be sold there this year alone -- that's nearly three times more electric bikes sold than autos. It's not surprising; electric bikes are inexpensive (as low as 1500 yuan, or about $180), easy to operate, and well-suited to the crowded urban Chinese streets. Most are made by a variety of small manufacturers, lifting designs and ideas from each other (and from overseas companies), competing aggressively for the Chinese market. They're used for intra-city transit and, increasingly, for deliveries.

But city and regional officials, mindful of the auto industry's status as a "pillar industry," have been trying to crack down on the use of electric bikes. They claim that the lead-acid batteries are an environmental risk, and that the use of electric bikes undercuts the use of public transit. Both arguments apply far more to automobiles, but there are no attempts to restrict cars in the same way.

Electric bike owners are ignoring the restrictions, however, and manufacturers are starting to build up some political weight of their own:

Although the odds against them are daunting, electric-bike manufacturers are pushing back, with surprising success. The mastermind of one of the most high-profile battles is Ni Jie, president of Luyuan Electric Vehicle Co., a privately owned manufacturer that has a pragmatic approach to the market, a sizable R&D effort, and an ambitious vision for Chinese EV technology. [...]

Ni took people power to surprising limits in 2003 when officials in Fuzhou, the capital of neighboring Fujian province, decided to ban electric bicycles—shutting off what until then had been one of Luyuan's best markets. The city not only ceased issuing licenses for electric bicycles but also seized 20 electric bikes from a bicycle shop in the summer of 2003. Ni gathered a coalition of 126 electric-bike manufacturers and filed suit against the city in its own municipal court. The coalition scored a partial win against the city government, forcing it to return the seized bikes.

Far more valuable, says Ni, was the sympathetic coverage they received from national media and the warning that attention sent to other municipalities. "What we told other governments is that if they do the same as Fuzhou, there will be some trouble," he says.

The Chinese government will be happy to have this energetic electric vehicle industry in the years to come, as the growing reliance on internal combustion autos becomes less and less tenable. The electric bikes could have some real value outside of dense urban areas, too. As we reported last month, the single-cylinder diesel "mules" in rural China, which make up a quarter of the vehicles in the country, are responsible for over half the pollution. As rural electrification in China progresses, electric scooters and delivery vehicles could take over that niche, reducing a major source of air pollution (and CO2) while building up a homegrown industry.

But rural China has more to worry about than diesel mules. Industrial parks are increasingly being located in rural areas because of the cheap land, with sometimes dire effects on the local populace. As the Washington Post reported on Monday, In the Dongyang region, the pollution from local factories (including one making pesticides) was so bad that it withered crops and sickened the residents of surrounding village, Huaxi.

But no one, the villagers lamented, would listen to their pleas to have the factories closed.

It was not for lack of trying. Huaxi officials, including Party Secretary Wang Wei, visited other factories in the region and warned in a confidential report that pollution was a danger to residents and agriculture. A copy of the report was leaked and posted for all to see. Partly as a result, villagers wrote an open letter to the Dongyang municipal government demanding the industrial park be closed.

"The Dongyang government turned a deaf ear to it all," said one of those involved.

In March, after four years of official complaints and petitions, the villagers took action, blockading the industrial park.

Initial attempts by police to remove protesters were blocked by villagers. A subsequent police raid, in April, resulted in beatings of a number of elderly protesters; as a result, 20,000 villagers came to their defense, destroying police vehicles and attacking the police with stones, forcing them to flee. Finally, in late May, local officials relented, agreeing to shut down the factories, and the protesters returned home. The Post reports that Dongyang has now sent plainclothes police into Huaxi to attempt to uncover who led the uprising.

As this indicates, a bottom-up environmental revolution will be neither bloodless nor smooth. Those in power dislike having their power challenged. Demands for a cleaner environment -- whether by protest or by purchase -- can result in restrictions and reprisals, only to see those demands made again, even more strongly.

It's increasingly clear that a growing number of Chinese citizens have decided that it's worth defying the authorities to reduce pollution. It's a risky decision. But if this trend continues, it could also be transformative -- and completely worldchanging.


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Comments (7)

Erik Ehlert:

China is an indication of what "free-market" driven, unregulated industries will do in the US, if some conservatives have their way.

David Wilcox:

Where's the Canadian electric bike? I want mine.With solar charging it would be a boon to old farts like me. D

Phil Jonat:

As I'm sure many on this site realize, environmental protection isn't all about regulations and stopping the free market. If our "conservatives" did what they claim to support, subsidies to environmentally harmful industries would be returned to us, the taxpayers. This would level the playing field and make environmentally responsible industries more cost effective. Sustainable/green businesses are the only companies which are cost effective in the long run. Getting them off the ground requires changing the rules. The free market seems like just the way to do it for me.

There's no such thing as a free market without government, and there's no such thing as a government without an economic system. Market versus government is a false dichotomy, and needs to be "unlearned." It's a crippling myopia.

Paddy Carter:

David while it is true that free markets require strong institutions to remain free, hence lots of "government", the breadth and depth of state intervention in the economy can vary wildly and in many individual areas of economic acvitity the decision is binary (i.e. intervene or not intervene) so in that sense the government versus free market dichotomy is certainly not false. Look at somewhere like Estonia, which has just gone from one extreme to the other (crudely speaking). here's a nice article:


Paddy, thanks for your comments and the link. I made my point strongly; you provide nuance - thank you. But I don't agree that the choice of market or government is "binary," i.e., "one or the other." As you say, a market is only "free" to function *within* a system where contracts are honored, currency is recognized, property rights are defined, market actors have equal access, etc. Markets also depend on infrastructure: transport, rights of way, educated citizens, etc. Governments often do "distort" markets. Unfortunately, that often stems from corruption created by powerful actors within the "market." It sets up a powerful positive feedback loop, creating "success to the successful." That's not a market, or a healthy government - it's an oligarchy: what China seems to be now, and what the United States is rapidly becoming.

This post - Chinese citizens demanding a cleaner environment - can be seen through different filters. One filter says that Chinese people asked their government to "interfere" with market-driven industries. Another filter - mine, admittedly - says that Chinese citizens demanded that the market's rules - contracts are honored, etc. - include a prohibition against "externalizing" pollution onto other people. If a company in your town said, "Folks, we want to make profits, and to increase them, we want you taxpayers to meet our payroll," I don't think you'd agree to that. This situation seems similar to me.


It has nothing to do with free market or environmental concern. This is exactly what happened in europe during the industrial revolution. In places that spanned from dictatorship to democracy and then some.

Its simply heavy industrialization. Something thats needed but not wanted by more people then any other infrastructure civilisation builds and whats vital for when a civilisation is building itself up to urbanism. This is the cost of your dense cities. This is what was paid before every time a dense city was built. This is HOW we manage to build them. And china and india have a TON of dense urban centers they need to build yet. Fun fun fun in the sun sun sun...


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