The tensions underlying how China deals with environmental complaints

By Christopher Marquis and Yanhua Bird 

In recent years, environmental activism has been increasingly vibrant in many emergingeconomies. As the economy becomes more developed, the public’s awareness of environmental sustainability has been rising. One notable example is China as Chinese citizens have begun expressing their concern for the natural environment via both online channels and through public protests. Yet China is an authoritarian country that imposes elaborate political controls over civic activism. Different from liberal democracies where regulators are frequently influenced by activists, Chinese government bureaus frequently repel bottom-up challengers. This raises an interesting question: how does activism influence the environmental agenda in an authoritarian country like China? Will it change the regulatory landscape? Or, will it be more likely to be silenced?

In a recent article, we provide the first systematic evidence of how various environmental movements in China affect the Chinese government’s environmental enforcement. Using a unique dataset of environmental penalties imposed on Chinese publicly listed firms from 2007 to 2011, we examine the efficacy of civic activism – environmental complaints and protests – aimed at spurring governmental enforcement action. Our research highlights the paradox of “responsive authoritarianism” on display in China: to avoid needing to rule by coercion alone, the government seeks citizens’ feedback and tolerates some pressures for change, but at the same time it resists the associated legitimacy threats regarding its capacity to rule, and as a result, in some cases the change pressures backfire.

The paradox of responsive authoritarianism

China has seen a shift toward “responsive authoritarianism”: the state allows for a limited degree of public participation and has been increasingly responsive to appeals from citizens to improve governance over societal issues such as environmental degradation. Citizens’ opinions can be conveyed to officials through formal institutions for political participation. For example, in 2011 Chinese environmental protection agencies at the local and central levels received 701,073 environmental complaint letters, almost twice as many as the 369,712 complaints in 2001. Environmental protests, however, deviate from the institutional arrangements set up by the state, draw public attention, and exert public pressure on the government and have also been on the rise.

Although our findings suggest that both environmental complaints and protests direct government attention to environmental issues, they also show that the state is responsive to people’s voice only insofar as their actions enhance stability and remain controllable. Citizen complaints are filed through formal channels set up by the state and involve private, individual actions, which contrasts with protests that are contentious, collective action occurring in public. While both of these types of civic activism provide pressure for change, our research shows its influence is affected by both the local government and the media, which play crucial and dual roles in this system.

The dual roles of local governments and media

The local government is the regulatory agency that directly interacts with citizens and responds to change pressures, and it has to walk a fine line between tolerating societal input and retaining legitimacy. When civic activism occurs within the system (i.e., complaints) and is thus less visible to the public, the government can act to avoid drawing widespread attention to the underlying issues. Our findings suggest that local governments with stronger bureaucratic capacities offer case-by-case solutions to citizens’ specific environmental complaints, which lets off steam without triggering widespread grievances. In these regions (e.g., Guangdong province), environmental complaints are shown to steer environmental protection bureaus away from regular but important enforcement duties to those that most directly cease citizens’ complaints, such as limiting noise pollution from construction sites. As a result, the overall effects of complaints in better run provinces essentially backfire – governments use this information is a way to protect their legitimacy as opposed to dealing with the underlying environmental problems. Our analyses show that in such regions, the effects of environmental complaints on environmental enforcement are mitigated.

But when change pressures occur outside the system — when they are public and so inevitably draw a fair amount of public attention —the state, in an effort to retain its legitimacy, must respond to effectively appease the public. Local governments in China frequently initiate campaign-style environmental enforcement that targets a wide range of firms with higher levels of scrutiny and increased penalties. For example, in 2004, the Yunnan government initiated an enforcement campaign targeting production related to the pollution of Lake Dianchi, shutting down dozens of factories within months. These campaign-led inspections are an example of high-profile, legitimacy-seeking responses to the public’s grievances. Our analyses show that in such regions, the effects of environmental protests are enhanced.

Media and online platforms are other tools the government uses to give this appearance. Since the 1990s, the media has been increasingly deregulated, privatised, and commercialised, which has spurred the flourishing of mass-appeal news reporting. Research shows that the development of the media (e.g., newspapers, radio, TV, and Internet) can subvert authoritarian state control over the flow of information. But China is listed as having very low press freedom, and during our period of observation, based on Freedom Houserankings it was typically in the bottom 20 of approximately 190 countries. Research has shown that the media in authoritarian states are used to consolidate power and sustain authoritarianism.

Our research shows the media works both ways. In China, the government has been shown to not only hold back newspapers’ criticism but also invest heavily to censor social media, fabricate online comments to distract the public and cheerlead for the regime. As a result, in areas with higher levels of media development, governments benefit from the greater credibility of the media and are likely to have greater public approval of their governance, alleviating pressure for change. Thus, when the media is an available and effective tool, governments can engage in more propaganda, as opposed to enforcement campaigns, such that firms in these areas face less regulatory risks. But when civic activism occurs outside the system (i.e., protests) and thus is more visible to the public, it tends to break through governmental information control because limited but real political tolerance and increasingly fierce market competition motivate the media to report events that are politically sensitive but are eye-catching. This counteracts the government’s ability to cover up crises and forces it to respond in a more systemic way to save face. This amplifies the impact of the activism.


Our research promotes a deeper understanding of governance strategies of authoritarian regimes vis-à-vis public feedback, and the efficacy of civic activism on governments and organisations in these regimes where civic activism is typically individualised and formal social movement organisations are suppressed. Our research also deepens understanding of the dual role of the media in social movement processes in an authoritarian setting. Under responsive authoritarianism, the government can deploy the media so that it simultaneously serves as a catalyst for change and also a tool for sustaining the existing system.

At a more practical level, understanding the dynamics of environmental regulation enforcement in an authoritarian regime such as China provides insight for firms operating in these political settings to be preemptive and anticipate policy enforcement, remain savvy about local civic mobilisation, avoid instigating citizens’ open confrontation, and form appropriate political and public relation strategies.

This article has been written by Christopher Marquis, the Samuel C. Johnson professor in global sustainable enterprise at the Johnson College of Business at Cornell University, and Yanhua Bird, a Ph.D. student in the organisational behaviour programme jointly offered by the Harvard Business School and the Department of Sociology at Harvard.

The original article can be found in LSE Business Review