Recent studies have shown that Chinese consumers have new demands and higher willingness to pay for their food and energy. According to Foreign Policy, food scandals over the years and increases in soil pollution have heightened concerns among Chinese consumers. A study by Organic Monitor showed that the organics market in China has grown from less than $100 million a decade ago to $3 billion this year. Additionally, 72% of Chinese consumers worry about the potential harms of food according to a McKinsey study. Over 95% of respondents in a China Dialogue study were aware of environmental pollution and nearly half were very concerned about this issue. This change in consumer awareness and dollar voting shows a shift in Chinese citizens’ view of their role in the country’s development. However, these studies should be parsed through more carefully to reveal underlying class differences and implications.
The China Dialogue study may reveal the impact of increased awareness and education about environmental issues on citizens’ behavior. Many citizens can maneuver around Internet censorship to educate themselves or seek out information on social media, but the Chinese newspapers have also become more transparent about the poor air quality across the country. The China Dialogue study showed that attitudes towards green energy were firmly linked to disgust of the country’s air pollution. Over 90% of respondents thought green electricity would help reduce pollution. The survey also showed that 97.6% of participants were willing to buy green electricity, and over 90% of those willing to buy would be willing to pay extra money for it, with Beijing reporting the highest willingness to pay.
Awareness and identification of pollution risk to one’s health or economic situation are key for mobilizing action. Studies on risk perceptions of pollution show that when risks are not perceived as pervasive in everyday life, dangers seem more distant spatially and temporally, so personal action seems ineffective. Anthony Downs also describes “alarmed discovery,” part of environmental problem developmental stages, when “one or more dramatic events or crises” capture the public’s attention and support for solving the issue. This year’s “red alerts” for air in Beijing may have motivated some to take action through their consumptive habits.
This change in consumer activism represents a shift in Chinese citizens’ perception of their own efficacy and their role in China’s development. A 2007 study by the Horizon Research Consultancy showed that Chinese residents prefer top-down policies for environmental protection and view bottom-up policies, like education and public participation, as less effective. However, the new organic food and renewable energy consumerism suggests a change in this perceived efficacy. Perhaps citizens feel they can show their support for environmental change and pressure the central government to create policies, and force local government to abide by such policies.
Another change in attitude is willingness to pay. The 2007 Horizon study also showed that Chinese citizens were unlikely to partake in environmental activities (like recycling or buying green products) if they required extra effort or money. Part of the reason for this perspective was that green products were not widely available or affordable. Perhaps in more recent years availability and pricing has changed and will continue to change, allowing consumers to see green consumerism as a more realistic possibility. Further study should look to identify exactly how and when this shift in economic and participation attitudes changed for environmental behavior.
Unfortunately, this emergence of eco-consumers may have little impact on the electricity industry. This is because household power use only constitutes 13.1% of electricity consumption, so these consumers are only a small part of the greater market. Additionally, it is important to look more closely at the survey data to see who exactly these consumers are. The China Dialogue survey involved 3000 participants across 10 cities (Shenyang, Beijing, Jinan, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Taiyuan, Xi’an, Chengdu and Lanzhou). There is no indication of the participants’ class background and no implication of this in the discussion of the results. 3000 is a great number of participants for academic study, but in the context of China’s massive population, it may not be that representative, especially since 5 of the participant cities are in the top 10 GDP earning cities in China, and 8 are in the top 25.
Maybe the 90% of participants who want to buy green electricity are all upper-middle class residents, but the majority of the Chinese population, who are less affluent, are unable to afford such electricity or haven’t heard of it. The Foreign Policy article noted that despite the growth of the organic food market, the price is still 5-10 times as expensive as conventional produce. Beijing, the focus city of the article, is one of the wealthiest in China and the per capita disposable income was only $7,200, while rural workers earn about $2,000 per year.
In addition, the China Dialogue study grouped together three different responses into the “would like to buy green power” majority: “probably,” “possibly,” and “certainly yes.” 40.7% of participants said certainly yes, but 56.9 said probably or possibly, showing that the majority of participants still held some hesitation. Furthermore, there is a stark difference between stated preference in a survey and actually acting on these preferences.
Despite this skepticism, it is still remarkable how attitudes towards public participation have changed among Chinese citizens and the government. Only time will tell if consumers actually buy green products and how public participation will continue to change in China’s environmental movement.