This essay series examines the roles that community-based organizations (CBOs) have played as active participants in the process of "governing" megacities whether in service delivery, risk mitigation, or the creation of livelihood and other opportunities. Read more ...
Air pollution has become one of the biggest environment problems in China, causing severe health risks. Residents, especially those living in big cities, are battling air pollution. Their demands for clean air have forced authorities in many Chinese cities to make a decision—shut down the industrial plants responsible for the pollution, or permit them to continue operating to sustain GDP growth. This essay seeks to shed light on how community residents take action to ensure healthy urban habitats through examining a community-based protest against industrial air pollution in the city of Hangzhou.
A Brief Introduction to Hangzhou
Hangzhou, the capital and largest city in Zhejiang Province in eastern China, lies south of the Yangtze River Delta, and forms the core of the Hangzhou metropolitan` area. By the end of 2011, the Hangzhou Metropolitan Area comprised 21.102 million people over an area of 34,585 square kilometers. It ranked as the fourth-largest metropolitan area in China in 2012. Hangzhou prefecture has a registered population of 8.892 million. By 2014, the the nine urban districts, two county-level cities and two counties) encompassed 16,596 square kilometers, with an urban area of 4,876 square kilometers.
With the continuing rapid expansion of the Hangzhou metropolitan area, Hangzhou development plans have to be redesigned, and local industries in the urban areas need to be relocated or even shut down. The core areas of Hangzhou contain many chemical plants, printing and pharmaceutical factories, and paper mills, all built in the late 1980s. In 2006, coal consumption by these polluting enterprises was 80 percent of the entire city, with the pollution discharge accounting for over 70 percent.
Residents living around those polluting enterprises experience severe air and water pollution. Many local residents have complained to the environmental protection authorities, and have registered their protests. In 2006 alone, the Hangzhou Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) received up to 1,250 complaints from local residents about industrial pollution.
The Community-Based Protest Against Industrial Air Pollution
The “Warm Home” community（亲亲家园 ), which was established in 2005, is located in the northwestern part of Hangzhou and consists of more than 6,000 families. The majority of the community’s residents are in the medium-to-high income bracket; among them are university faculties, young office workers, and local civil servants.
Upon moving to the community, new residents encountered a foul smell of plastic or rubber. Some residents experienced chronic when sleeping at night. Many residents chose to move out of the community for better air quality. Most residents turned to the local EPB for help but were told that the local authority could do nothing before finding the source of the pollution.
Beginning in May of 2008, residents’ complaints increased sharply as the air quality deteriorated. Residents spontaneously formed a self-help organization called Protest Against Air Pollution to locate the sources of the pollution. The leaders of this self-help organization were voluntary, not elected. In July 2008, they formed an online forum (BBS), titled “protesting against air pollution,” to express their views about the poor air quality and release notices for taking collective action. Residents from the self-help organization took turns tracing the sources of pollution, and took photos or videos to serve as evidence for further complaints. Within a week of initiating these efforts, they found that the air quality was worse at night than during the daytime. The head of the self-help organization observed: “The managers of polluting factories were clever enough to discharge more exhaust gas after midnight and before the early morning, so that the local EPB could not detect them during working hours. That’s why we had to drop our sleep time to collect evidence of pollution source.”
In late July of 2008, residents asked the local EPB to join their actions in detecting polluting sources and confirm the evidence they had collected. They confirmed that Hangzhou Aidiya Arts & Crafts Co., Ltd., a private chemicals production enterprise located within just 500 meters from the community, was one of the polluting sources yet was operating without a pollution emissions permit. Another source of the pollution is the Hangzhou Blue Peafowl Chemical Fiber Co., Ltd., situated less than 3 km from the Warm Home community. This chemical plant, which has been operating for more than 30 years, is a state-owned enterprise affiliated with the Hangzhou Industrial Assets Management and Investment Group co., Ltd.
The Hangzhou Aidiya Arts & Crafts Company was shut down within a month of the local EPB joining the cause, in August 2008. Hangzhou Blue Peafowl Chemical Fiber Company was assigned for relocation without specifying a date. “It was easy for the local EPB to shut down a private enterprise without the permit of pollution emissions very quickly, but it was very difficult to punish the state-owned enterprises, even if they didn’t have the permit. The state-owned enterprises are supported by certain government departments that bring many obstacles. Besides, the laid-off workers of state-owned enterprises are another big problem.”
Although the Hangzhou Aidiya Arts & Crafts Company was shut down, residents found that the air quality did not substantially improve. “We were pretty sure that there must be other polluting enterprises in addition for the Hangzhou Blue Peafowl Chemical Fiber Company,” said one of the leaders of the self-help organization. Residents asked the local EPB to identify and punish more enterprises. However, the local authority’s detection report found that the emissions of other enterprises suspected of contributing to pollution (the majority of them state owned) were all in compliance with existing emission standards.
After getting the report of the local EPB, discontented residents chose to make a signature petition to the local government. Within one week of canvassing for support, more than 2,000 families had signed their names to the collective appeal, which shocked local officials. Meanwhile, leaders of the self-help organization invited local media, including the Today’s Morning Newspaper, the Hangzhou Daily, the Youth Times, and the China Environment News, to report the serious air pollution in the Warm Home community, which increased the pressure on the polluting enterprises.
It is important to note that the self-help organization’s efforts coincided with the 29th Summer Olympic Games held in Beijing. Many international journalists were working in China to report the news of the games—a period during which local governments in China were asked to do their utmost to ensure a “harmonious society.” Accordingly, the local EPB decided to increase their efforts to trace the pollution sources at night to address residents’ complaints. Two additional enterprises, the Hangzhou Plastic Industry Co., Ltd., and the Boom Special Rubber Plastic Industry Co., Ltd., were confirmed as polluting sources and ordered to suspend production for three days to detect the actual pollution emission.
However, when the self-help organization made an effort to persuade the local EPB to shut down all polluting enterprises, it encountered many obstacles. First, on August 19, 2008, the BBS online forum discussion topic titled “air pollution” was forbidden; residents could not access it to communicate. Second, rumors began to spread among residents, who criticized the bad performance of the self-help organization. Some residents suspected that the organization’s leaders had been bought off by polluting enterprises, or were connected to the local EPB. Third, residents who worked as civil servants were asked to desist from participating in the protest, or else face punishment by the local government, causing them to drop out of the self-organization group.
Nevertheless, the remaining leaders of the self-help organization persevered, deciding to adopt a more active strategy to push the local EPB. One core leader, Mr. Ma, made numerous copies of petition letters, whose contents consisted of media reports about air pollution and complaint letters bearing residents’ signatures. Each copy of the petition letter was more than 160 pages. These petition letters were widely circulated in the community.
Mr. Ma mailed petition letters to the provincial government. “We hope the Hangzhou EPB could exert pressure on the provincial government’s leadership to take effective action aimed at improving the air quality,” said Mr. Ma. One journalist connected to the self-help organization submitted a confidential report along with the petition letter to the provincial government office.
Both provincial and municipal leaders responded, and they required the Hangzhou EPB take measures as soon as possible. Other leaders of the self-help organization ed members of the committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative in Hangzhou and members of the Committee of the People’s Congress in Hangzhou to submit petition letters as policy proposals. For example, one of the leaders of the self-help organization working in the Zhejiang University sought help from his colleague Zhanghua Lou—a member of the Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative in Hangzhou. Zhanghua Lou submitted a proposal titled: “A Suggestion to Solve the Problems of Air Pollution in the ‘Warm Home’ Community and Other Communities,” which proposed that the Hangzhou government establish specific relocation dates for polluting enterprises.
Figure: Petition Letters on “The Industrial Air Pollution in the ‘Warm Home’ community”
(Photo by a resident of the “Warm Home” community, Hangzhou, 2008)
The Outcome of Protest
In September 2008, the Hangzou EPB issued an official response to the petition letters submitted by the self-help organization. The EPB’s response contained the following commitments to residents:
1. The Hangzhou Blue Peafowl Chemical Fiber Co., Ltd., the key polluting enterprise owned by the state, would reduce production levels, starting in September 2008. It would fully shut down in March 2009, one year earlier than its original schedule.
2. The Hangzhou EPB would frequently communicate with residents; inviting them to identify sources of pollution, listening to their voice in the community, and releasing updated information regarding relocating polluting enterprises.
3. The Hangzhou Plastic Industry Co., Ltd. and the Boom Special Rubber Plastic Industry Co., Ltd., would also be relocated ahead of schedule.
In the ensuing months, an interaction mechanism between residents and the Hangzhou EPB was formed. Three times each month, technicians from the Hangzhou EPB went to the community to take samples at different sites. In late 2008, the director of the Hangzhou EPB also paid a visit to the community to declare the Hangzhou EPB’s battle against air pollution. In August 2009, Mr. Ma, the aforementioned leader of self-help organization, together with other residents, was invited to visit the new factory site of the Hangzhou Plastic Industry Co., Ltd. in Lin’An County. By the end of 2009, the Warm Home community’s protest against industrial air pollution had succeeded, as all polluting enterprises were relocated.
The Warm Home community protest against industrial pollution provides several insights about agency and governance in a mega-city. The self-help organization evolved organically from within the “Warm Home” community. Its structure was neither formal nor hierarchical. Its membership was strictly voluntary, and its leaders were not elected.
Furthermore, the organization displayed perseverance in seeking to overcome the many obstacles posed by industry and government officials. They employed a variety of tactics, ranging from written petitions to personal s, as well as other informal channels to local authorities. Additionally, the protesters sought to gain the attention of political elites and the public through formal political channels and through various media outlets.
Finally, the protest against industrial air pollution had a narrow scope, as well as a specific, limited objective. Therefore, the self-help organization was dissolved after having achieved its goal. The collective action of protesting against the industrial pollution showed a growing consciousness by ordinary citizens of their rights through holding the local government accountable for improving urban habitats.
 This essay draws upon newspaper reports, official statistics as well as data from interviews conducted during fieldwork in March, 2015 in the course of a sub study in the international and interdisciplinary research project "Airborne: Pollution, Climate Change and New Visions of Sustainability in China" () scheduled for 2015 to 2019. The author is grateful to the Norwegian Research Council and IKOS at the University of Oslo for financial support.
 Xin Wei (Ed.), Economic and Social Development Report of Hangzhou Metropolitan Circles (2007-2012) (in Chinese) (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2012).
 The Evaluation Index of China Metropolitan Circles in 2012 (in Chinese), , accessed on 2015-09-29.
 The data is from the Hangzhou Statistic Bureau, , accessed on 2015-09-29.
 The data is from the Hangzhou Environment Protection Bureau, , accessed on 2015-09-29.
 “Air pollution,” BBS online forum (in Chinese), .
 Interview with the head of the self-help organization, March 27, 2015.
 The interview with the lead of local EPB on March 22, 2015.
 The interview with the lead of self-help organization on March 27, 2015.
 The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) is a political advisory body in the People’s Republic of China. The organization consists of delegates from a range of political parties and organizations, as well as independent members. The role the CPPCC plays in the Chinese government is stated in the preamble of the PRC Constitution. In practice, its role and powers are somewhat analogous to an advisory body to the legislative upper house. There have been occasional proposals to formalize this role in the PRC Constitution.
 The local People’s Congresses at various levels in China are the organs of state power in their respective administrative areas. Local people’s government, people’s courts and people’s procurator rates are elected by the people's congresses at the corresponding levels, to which they are responsible and report their work, and by which they are supervised.