Get to know your neighbors. Environmental protests are hardly new in China. For years there has been small-scale unrest, sometimes violent, among rural workers enraged at the air and water pollution caused by local factories. But recently there has been a key shift in environmental activism from the country to the city, and from uneducated peasants to the urban elite. “This is the most important shift in terms of unrest right now,” says Economy. In Shanghai, for example, hundreds took to the streets in January 2008 to protest a planned extension of the city’s high-speed commuter train, voicing their fear that electromagnetic radiation from the train line could damage their health. In early May 2008, similar and very public complaints erupted over plans by China’s state-run oil company to build a new ethylene plant 18 miles upstream from the southwestern city of Chengdu. These protests are notable not only for their white-collar participants but also for the increasing use of technology — cell phones, text messaging, and Weblogs — to publicize them. What’s the lesson for business? China’s environmental movement is evolving from a grassroots rural phenomenon inspired primarily by health concerns to an urban movement in which property values, not-in-my-backyardism, and other economic issues are coming to the fore. Multinationals in China should study this evolution on a location-specific basis — and be prepared to respond to the increasingly complex methods and motivations of the movement.
Will China solve its massive environmental problems? That’s far from clear. But this seems certain: Pressure on the government to show progress will only increase, as will scrutiny of multinationals doing business in the country. This summer, the Beijing Olympics will seize the world’s attention, providing a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the environmental movement to plead its case to a rapt global audience. Multinationals operating in China should make their own Olympian efforts to ensure they’re cited as part of the solution.
Brendan Vaughan is an editor at Esquire and a former senior editor at Portfolio. His articles have appeared in a wide range of national publications, including Esquire, Outside, and the New York Times.