Since the Chinese reform and opening up in 1978, China has experienced an unprecedented industrialization and urbanization process over the past forty years. While such an important historical process has resulted in high-speed economic growth and continuously improved life quality, severe environmental pollution and ecological degradation problems have occurred across the country and are frequently reported through multiple media channels. According to the Report on the State of the Ecology and Environment in China in 2017, 239 cities failed to meet national air quality standards, accounting for 70.7% of all cities [1
]. Furthermore, 66.6% of 5100 groundwater monitoring sites exhibited poor or very poor water quality; the total area of counties with relatively poor or poor ecological environmental quality took up 33.5% of total land area [1
]. This, in turn, could endanger human health and safety, and further challenge the sustainable development of the economy and society in China.
In order to effectively address these issues of environment and ecology, a multi-agent system for environmental governance has been gradually established in China over the years, mainly including governments, enterprises, social organizations and public participation [2
]. Under this mechanism, public participation plays an important bridging role, linking other parts of the system through empowering civil rights and encouraging citizens to participate in environmental protection [3
]. Correspondingly, the government of China issued a series of laws and regulations to ensure their citizens’ rights to participate in environmental governance [6
]; for example, the Environmental Protection Law was issued in 1989 and amended in 2014. Other pertinent laws and regulations include the Decision of the State Council on Several Issues Concerning Environmental Protection (1996), Environmental Impact Assessment Law (2003), Measures for Public Participation in Environmental Protection (2015), and Guiding Opinions on Building a Modern Environmental Governance System (2020). Furthermore, National Five-Year Plans and several action plans for the prevention and control of major forms of pollution (i.e., air, water, soil pollution) also emphasized and elaborated the function and importance of public participation for environmental protection and management.
Of all the modes of public participation, citizen environmental complaints are undoubtedly the most popular and widely-used mode for individuals or communities protecting their environmental interests and public safety [7
]. Other modes, for instance, environmental protests, internet public opinions, public hearings in environmental impact assessments, environmental non-government organizations (ENGOs), NPC motions and CPPCC proposals, together with citizen complaints jointly constitute the main body of the public participation subsystem in the environmental governance system [8
]. The Chinese state has set up its own environmental complaint system since the early 1990s, namely the ‘Huanjing Xinfang’ system, a kind of system which literally means citizens can lodge their complaints regarding environmental issues by means of writing letters or visiting environmental agencies directly [10
]. It should be noted that traditional channels for citizens lodging complaints (e.g., writing letters or visiting the authorities in early days) has been gradually replaced by emerging ways (e.g., dialing a hotline, reporting online or, more recently, simply via smartphone apps) in the past three decades. In reality, the availability of multiple and convenient channels also led to a surge in the number of complaints and people involved. This change makes necessary the reevaluation of the role of citizen environmental complaints in China’s current environmental governance system.
Although the efficacy of citizen environmental complaints on pollution abatement is still contentious, plenty of studies show that it is conducive to environmental governance. This can be understood by assessing the role that citizen complaints play in two closely connected but distinct circumstances. In the first place, a number of studies examined the effectiveness of citizen complaints on environmental performance, regarding citizen complaints as a policy tool for public participation in the environmental governance system. Some studies suggested that environmental complaints in China had positive influences on pollution control [2
], while other scholars held the opposite position, suggesting that it had limited or even no significant effects on improving regional environmental quality [5
]. It is worth nothing that the usefulness of citizen complaints may vary widely in terms of pollutant types and complaint methods at the aggregate level. Moreover, the complaints may also exert various influences on environmental laws, regulations or enforcement of the government, thereby indirectly prompting the enterprise behaviors to comply with local environmental policies and improve the overall environment.
In the second place, as a special monitoring instrument, citizen environmental complaints can also provide useful but noisy information in reflecting environmental quality and health. Over the past few decades, China has progressively established a relatively well-developed monitoring network to report eco-environmental dynamics. In spite of this, the network is far from monitoring all sorts of pollution sources, especially for those small-medium enterprises dispersedly distributed in remote or rural areas in China [10
]. Therefore, regulators may solicit complaints from the public damaged by pollution so as to allocate inspection resources, because local residents are often more familiar with neighboring polluters located in their living surroundings [15
]. This kind of cost-effective approach for direct monitoring, however, often contains noisy information that requires further investigation and verification on the spot [16
]. In general, the public has a propensity to complain about those polluting issues with visible and odorous pollutants [15
]. In addition, other possible factors, such as forms of pollutants, regional disparity and citizens’ environmental awareness, may also contribute to the cognitive bias of environmental information in indicating actual pollution problems or polluted regions.
Nevertheless, previous research on the role of citizen environmental complaints and the factors mobilizing citizens to file complaints on environmental issues is still limited. Theoretically, if there is no environmental pollution, there are no environmental complaints. Thus, a handful of studies suggested that citizen complaints were significantly associated with pollution discharges in China using provincial level statistical datasets [10
]. Complaints might be affected by certain, but not all, forms of harmful pollutants, such as high-visible dust particulates in the air [15
], industrial waste water [18
], chemical oxygen demand and SO2
]. In addition, those socio-economic factors that may drive people’s awareness and behaviors to lodge complaints were also examined and discussed in depth. Dasgupta and Wheeler investigated and estimated the relationship between environmental complaints and socio-economic factors in China using a provincial panel data set over the period 1991–1993 [15
]. They found that higher income and education levels increased the incidence of citizens filing complaints, which may lead to disproportionate allocation of inspection resources to those who live in areas with better economic and educational conditions. Based on econometric models and statistical data at the provincial level in China, some studies have suggested that complaints were significantly related with household income or per capita GDP [10
], education level and population size [20
]. Furthermore, several studies were performed to assess the influencing factors of environmental complaints in relation to livestock operations or agricultural spills in North America [16
]. For example, Weersink and Raymond examined the influence of local environmental regulations and other factors on the possibility of both farm spills and complaints in southwestern Ontario, Canada for the period 1993–1996 [16
]. Their results suggested that agricultural spills, education and income had a significantly positive impact on the number of complaints and indicated that the complaints could be used by the local regulators to identify problem regions, though the information signals would be noisy. Additionally, this kind of environmental behavior may differ considerably from person to person in terms of environmental psychology. Zhang et al. explored the social psychological antecedents of citizen environmental complaints by using the norm activation model and questionnaire survey data in China [7
], which could aid in the understanding of what microscopic factors drove citizens to file complaints to environmental agencies.
To our best knowledge, however, most of the existing literature studying citizen environmental complaints in China merely utilized traditional methods of complaints from statistical data as a proxy index (e.g., the number of visits or letters) at macro levels (e.g., national or provincial levels) [9
]. Additionally, the typical characteristics of environmental complaints, including its accuracy, types of complaints, and noisy problems, were rarely analyzed or discussed in previous literatures. The purpose of this paper is to reevaluate the role of citizen environmental complaints using cases of citizen environmental complaints via hotline and the internet from the MEP of China for the period 2013–2017. In order to do so, we first describe the typical characteristics of the accuracy and types of environmental complaints. The spatial patterns and influencing factors are then identified and presented at prefecture-level city scales by employing spatial analysis methods and spatial econometric models, and finally the role of the complaints is assessed in China’s current environmental governance system and environmental monitoring network.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows: Section 2
describes data sources and research methods selected. Section 3
presents the results of statistical characteristics, spatial patterns and spatial regression models of citizen environmental complaints in China. The potential influencing factors of citizen complaints regarding environmental problems together with its roles in China’s current environmental governance and monitoring systems are then discussed in Section 4
. Finally, we summarize major findings and policy implications in Section 5
Citizen environmental complaints play a key role in China’s environmental governance system and environmental monitoring network. In recent years, the status of ecology and the environment in China has been gradually improved as a whole, and at the same time the citizens’ concerns and demands for environmental quality has also been continually rising [20
]. Moreover, rapid changes in technology, such as mobile internet, artificial intelligence (AI), and big data, facilitated citizens filing complaints and regulators collecting information. Hence, the number of cases of citizen complaints seems to be bound to continue to expand in the near future, which may lead to plenty of resources allocated to responding to and solving these issues coming from citizens over the country. In this context, it is extremely necessary to reevaluate the role of citizen environmental complaints in China. To vividly depict its role in the above two systems, we illustrated an analysis framework of the role of environmental complaints lodged by citizens via internet and hotlines in China (Figure 4
As mentioned above, despite the fact that the effectiveness of citizen complaints on environmental performance remains contentious, it is certain that it can be considered as an essential and indispensable part of China’s environmental governance system. As shown in Part 1 of Figure 4
, the subsystem of public participation with multiple bottom-up channels radically changes the situation wherein the government acts as the sole agent for environmental health and safety, as in the governance system illustrated by a top-down hierarchical architecture [10
]. Compared with other channels, citizen environmental complaints today are typically characterized by convenient, cost-effective, real-time, relatively moderate, complaint-driven pollution abatement, and the real public participation involved the majority of people. The system works in two ways, directly or indirectly, compelling polluters to adhere to laws, regulations and standards. On the one hand, citizens, individuals, or communities in China, once damaged by pollution, can lodge their complaints to the authorities; after receiving cases of complaints, the agencies and regulators are very responsive to citizens’ concerns on environmental issues by inspecting the potential polluters within a given time. If the complaint is found to be true, agencies and regulators will deal with the regulation violations of polluting enterprises in accordance with the law and regulations by, for example, demanding rectification within a specific time, suspending production, imposing fines or penalties, banning or closing the enterprise, and the like. It has also been proven that environmental complaints could significantly promote the law enforcement of the government only [6
]. On the other hand, the public may also enhance their bargaining position by threatening to make complaints to the authorities when they are directly engaged in negotiation with neighboring polluting enterprises [10
]. An error rate of approximately a quarter in citizen complaints may result in a huge waste of inspection resources, but this seemingly ‘unnecessary’ practice is actually inevitable, and extremely needed to promote environmental justice and environmental democracy in China in terms of resolving individual problems regarding environmental pollution.
Over the past few decades, China’s own environmental monitoring network has been built up by the government, which mainly refers to monitoring pollution sources, ecology, coastal areas, and the atmospheric, water, soil, and acoustic environment, as described in Part 2 (Figure 4
). This network is comprised of many fixed monitors. Currently, these include 2100 air quality monitoring stations, 2767 surface water monitoring sections, 300 water quality automatic stations, and more than 40,000 soil monitoring points [34
]. Citizen environmental complaints, as a special monitoring tool, are also characterized by large coverage, high spatial-temporal resolution, noisy information. This sort of ‘noisy’ feature possibly constraints its effective information provision as environmental indicators that can be further interpreted from several aspects, as follows. Firstly, unlike those precise fixed monitors that can detect subtle changes in the environment and provide a variety of quantitative indicators, citizen complaints are born to be subjective and qualitative when regarded as a monitoring tool. Meanwhile, the complexity and diversity of environmental pollution reinforces its uncertainty in reflecting the true status of the environment and ecology. Secondly, people often make judgments on environmental issues basically by relying on personal senses (i.e., sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing) and, therefore, visible, odorous, and loud pollutants or pollution processes tend to receive more attention and even be exaggerated by personal perception to some extent. Nevertheless, it is scarcely possible for citizens without the relevant expertise to recognize those invisible, odorless, or imperceptible pollutants that may truly damage the ecology and environment; this includes, for instance, ecological degradation, soil heavy metal pollution, and agricultural non-point source pollution. Finally, individual or regional divergence related to economic, education, pollution, and governance capabilities will project this noisy information on the map, and this biased signal of citizen complaints, to some extent, may be further strengthened or weakened at different scales. In practice, the approximately 75% accurate rate of China’s citizen complaints on environmental issues was much higher than that of the 55% rate of verified cases in the study of citizen complaints and livestock operations in Michigan, USA [17
Socio-economic characteristics are assumed to be the basis to influence and, to a large extent, determine overall pollution status, citizen awareness or perception, and even governance capability. In a previous study, the EKC effect was found between income levels and the number of environmental complaints, with the turning point of around 140,000 yuan, which China was far from reaching [20
]. In our conclusions, however, the coefficient between per capital GDP and the number of citizen complaints was statistically negative. However, this did not necessarily indicate that an inverted U-shaped curve had been in existence in our study. In the past decade, China’s economic model, which had been undergoing high-speed development and was energy-intensive and highly-polluting, was already being progressively transformed into high-quality development with lower carbon emissions and pollution discharges [35
]. Furthermore, accompanying industrial transformation and upgrades in eastern coastal areas in China, polluting industries and sectors had already begun to transfer to central and western interior regions, which urgently need to develop their economy and have loose environmental policies and regulations [37
]. Additionally, the map of regional economies displayed the rising disparity between the northern and southern areas in China owing to regional differences in economic development models [39
]. In contrast to the northern areas, southern China went through a more thorough reform, opening up, and marketization. Given that regional differentiation, the environmental capacity, resources endowment and ecology in the southern and coastal regions is apparently much better than that of the rest of China. Therefore, a negative effect was found between per capita GDP and citizen complaints at the prefecture level.
Theoretically, no pollution should result in no complaints. Nearly all studies had firmly confirmed that environmental pollution triggered citizens lodging complaints. In terms of pollution types, air quality or pollution received the most attention in China, which has been proven by other studies [10
]. China has been facing the worst air pollution problem in the world [41
]. Air quality changes can be easily sensed by citizens anytime and anywhere [10
]. In addition, other types of pollution, for example, water pollution, might also deteriorate air quality by emitting odorous gases [15
]. Nevertheless, it has been rather difficult for an agreement to be reached on the effects of specific pollutants on complaints based on various data sources and methods. Unexpectedly, there was no significant relationship between the volume of industrial soot (dust) emission and the number of complaints, even if in terms of air pollution. This result was contradictory with the study conducted by Dasgupta and Wheeler [10
], which suggested that high-visible dust (particulate) intensity could consistently and significantly induce citizens filing complaints. Actually, environmental pollution, or a type of pollution, is generally represented by a set of indicators; air pollution, for example, can be systemically measured by various indicators of SO2
, CO, O3
, PM10, PM 2.5, etc. Furthermore, China, especially in northern areas, has been always covered by large-scale fog and haze with poor visibility and toxic substances in winter, which root in a large number of production and living activities, such as coal-fired heating, motor vehicles and traditional heavy industry enterprises [43
]. Given that, hardly positioning these pollution sources and ‘free riding’ among citizens might also result in an insignificant association relationship. It should be noted that there was still a gap between individual cases and regional environment quality due to the existence of the ecology fallacy of scale transformation.
The era of the internet has brought unprecedented changes to all walks of life in China, and environmental governance of course is not an exception. On the one hand, the internet provides advanced media technology of information disclosure and access for the government and the public, as well as multiple platforms for citizens expressing their concerns and demands. In late 2011, the US Embassy reported Beijing’s PM 2.5 monitoring data on Twitter, when PM 2.5 was not yet a regulated indicator or pollutant in China at the time [20
]. The PM 2.5 monitoring dynamics were reposted on Sina Weibo (a social media website in China) by a netizen, which aroused a furious debate over air quality among scholars, officials, and netizens throughout the country. In practice, this event could be regarded as a landmark for the rising environmental awareness of Chinese citizens. As a consequence, the debate derived on the internet directly prompted the government to set up a national network for PM2.5 monitoring, and the corresponding laws, regulations and other policies were enacted and implemented in order to alleviate citizen grievances and improve air quality. On the other hand, the government also established the 12369 platform based on internet and mobile apps in 2011, which greatly facilitated citizens lodging complaints. With a few clicks of buttons and the typing of a few lines of text, citizens in China can accomplish the whole procedure of an environmental complaint case. In fact, the proliferation of the internet and telephone, to a great extent, lower the threshold of the educational level that early complaint channels of visits or letters should have. This could be an appropriate reason to explain why the effect of higher education on citizen complaints was insignificant in this study.
The government of China should continue to encourage and expand public participation with regard to environmental issues and raise the status of citizen complaints in environmental governance. Citizen environmental complaints should work together with other policy instruments, such as command-control policies, market incentive policies and other modes of public participation. For example, the role of citizen complaints can be viewed as an important reference for decision making in the environmental governance of the government in terms of investment, legislation and enforcement. In order to improve environmental performance, the central government sets a series of binding and anticipatory targets or goals that are further diluted to subordinate administrative units to perform the tasks from top to bottom. In the process of responding to citizen complaints, local agencies and regulators ought to combine complaint-initiated inspections on polluters with the attainment of these ambitious targets, such as energy consumption, carbon emissions, and air and water quality. One thing that must be kept in mind is the information privacy of complainants, which urgently need to be further protected and managed by the authorities. It has been reported that, in early 2021, Mr. Shao, who lived in Zhoukou city, Henan province, dialed a hotline to complain about midnight pollution emissions of a factory to the local environmental protection agency; nevertheless, he was assaulted, beaten and threatened by the employees of this polluting factory owing to the leakage of personal information by the local regulators [45
In reality, tens of thousands of citizens can be seen as innumerable sensors monitoring environmental dynamics; therefore, China has the largest environmental monitoring network based on individuals in the world. The synergy and coordination between citizen environmental complaints and other monitoring instruments need to be promoted in years to come. For example, air quality monitoring stations often fail to identify the position of various polluters, while local residents are familiar with their neighboring status and can easily determine the pollution sources or problem areas, especially for those small, dispersed polluters and for remote, rural areas in China. Hence, their functions can complement each other in providing more reliable and better information on the environment and ecology. In order to reduce noisy information, it is necessary to introduce advanced technology and deeply combine this with China’s current major social media platforms, such as Wechat, Sina Weibo, and Douyin (TikTok). It will be helpful for regulators to scientifically interpret environmental issues through providing richer information regarding text, pictures, short videos, or even live broadcasts. In addition, the cultivation of environmental awareness should be strengthened, especially for those relatively poorer communities and remote areas, by means of increasing household income, enhancing basic education, building internet infrastructure, etc.