Peter K. New Award Winner, 2004: Perceptions of Risk from Industrial Pollution in China: A Comparison of Occupational Groups

Article excerpt

As economic reforms have transformed the People's Republic of China over the past several decades, rapid industrialization has resulted in air and water pollution problems that threaten the health of China's citizens and damage the environment. Small-scale rural factories called "township and village enterprises" play a major role in China's growing pollution problem. However, very little is known about how rural Chinese citizens perceive industrial pollution. This paper examines how community members in an industrial township in China's southwestern province of Sichuan perceive the environmental risks associated with industrialization. The paper first focuses on identifying salient risks from pollution, as defined by local informants. Next, the risk perceptions of three occupational groups in the community (industrial workers, commercial and service sector workers, and farmers) are compared. In contrast to the common view that poor individuals and communities worry less about environmental problems, most informants in this study perceived industrial pollution as posing considerable risk to themselves and the community, despite the community's heavy reliance on industry. This study also finds that different occupational groups perceive industrial pollution quite differently, and that these differences in risk perception are related to a number of factors, including the distribution of financial benefits from local factories. The paper concludes with theoretical and applied considerations for the study of environmental risk perception and risk management.

Key words: environmental risk, perception, industrial pollution, economic development, China


The economy of the People's Republic of China has grown with unprecedented speed over the last quarter century. With a sustained average annual increase in gross domestic product (GDP) of nearly ten percent, China is widely expected to become the world's largest economy, surpassing the United States, in the next two decades (Mittleman and Pasha 1997). One of the main driving forces behind this growth trend is the township and village enterprise (TVE) sector, which is comprised of some 20 million small-scale factories throughout the Chinese countryside. Taken together, TVEs employ more than 130 million rural workers and account for one-third of China's GDP (Chinese Statistical Bureau 2001). This economic success story has an equally dramatic downside. Township and village enterprises emit 60% of China's air and water pollution, endangering human health and posing a serious threat to agro-ecosystems (World Bank 1997). The TVE sector thus represents one of the most significant threats to the environment and human health in a country facing a pollution problem of enormous proportions.

Because of their geographical dispersal, township and village enterprises are notoriously difficult to monitor and regulate. As a result, air pollution (including paniculate matter, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds) and water pollution (including industrial waste water and heavy metal emissions) are common byproducts of rural industrialization which affect many of China's 800 million rural residents. Some recent studies have begun to shed to light on how urban Chinese perceive environmental risks, including industrial pollution (Lai and Tao 2003; Zhang 1994). To date, however, there has been no systematic examination of how China's rural residents view the risks associated with industrial pollution, despite the fact that 70 percent of the country's population lives in rural areas where industrialization is currently occurring most rapidly.

The general aim of this paper, which draws on ethnographic data, semi-structured interviews, and a survey conducted during six months of fieldwork in 2003, is to examine how community members in a rural industrial township in China perceive air and water pollution emitted by local township and village enterprises. …