The People’s Republic of China approaches its 60th anniversary on 1 October with much to celebrate, but the road ahead for the world’s most populous nation is uncertain. Since the 1979 economic reforms ended collective agriculture, opened foreign trade, and began to give more autonomy to the business sector, China has achieved rapid economic development, industrialization, and urbanization, with annual gross domestic product (GDP) increases of 8–9 percent. This process has significantly lifted average living standards, decreased poverty, and improved life expectancies. The rapid development, however, has also severely degraded the environment, creating serious challenges for China’s future development.
Until recently, there has been little research on Chinese environmental attitudes or behavior. It is important, however, to understand whether environmental degradation in China has led to increased public concern and, if so, whether this concern has led to pro-environmental behavior and support for more aggressive government action. As a 2002 UN Development Programme report on the potential for sustainable development in China observed, public environmental awareness and concern are among the most important driving forces for environmental improvements worldwide, and a well-informed society, with outspoken public intellectuals, is often a necessary condition for successful environmental protection.
A look at Chinese environmental attitudes and behaviors might best begin in urban areas, where residents tend to have higher levels of education, income, and exposure to the mass media than their rural counterparts, and where environmental degradation is clearly evident.
In June–August 2007, the Horizon Research Consultancy Group, one of the largest survey research companies in China, conducted a survey in 10 major Chinese cities selected to represent a diversity of geography and economic development across the country: Beijing, Chengdu, Dalian, Guangzhou, Jinan, Shanghai, Shenyang, Wuhan, Xiamen, and Xian. The study, the most recent publicly available survey of environmental attitudes and behavior in urban China, describes environmental attitudes and behavior only in these cities, so its results cannot be generalized to the entire country.