2014 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Augustana College (Illinois)

Emerging Concern over Urban Air Pollution in China: Opportunities and Challenges for Civil Society

Mentors: David Dehnel and Xiaowen Zhang, Political Science Students: Mason Broxham ’14, Emma Cox ’16, Anh Hoang ’14, Peter Siepiora ’16, Aubrey Waddick ‘16

The research group from Augustana College spent three weeks in Beijing conducting research on urban air pollution in China. The five students were divided into three research teams. One studied the role of China’s traditional media and social media in raising public awareness and shaping public perception regarding urban air pollution. Another studied the response of domestic environmental NGOs to air pollution and their accomplishments in addressing this issue. The third focused on the strategies adopted by international NGOs to address air pollution. We conducted research at the National Library, through participant observation at NGO offices, and through interviewing NGO, governmental, and social activists. Overall, the group collected 250 completed surveys and recorded interviews with more than 100 people, in addition to observing and interacting with many environmental NGOs and INGOs. We are currently organizing and analyzing the data collected. We plan to share our research results with the campus community at Augustana in January 2015 and submit our research papers to political science conferences this academic year.

Poster 1 from 2015 annual meeting poster session Poster 2 from 2015 annual meeting poster session Poster 3 from 2015 annual meeting poster session
Anh Hoang working in the Capital Library
Anh Hoang working in the Capital Library

Mason Broxham
Emma Cox and I focused on domestic environmental NGOs’ attempts to confront air pollution concerns at the environmental, educational, and policy level. Working with organizations such as the CAAC (Clean Air Alliance of China) gave us valuable insight into the techniques used by Chinese ENGOs for combating the problem of air pollution. A difficulty we encountered while carrying out our portion of the project was finding organizations to interview. As recently as mid-2013 there was very little mobilization around the issue of air pollution from ENGOs operating within China. Among the interviews we conducted there were small student-led groups (an environmental club at Beijing University) as well as large internationally recognized organizations (the Alibaba foundation). This allowed us to glimpse activism on many scales. Some of the positive trends perceived by most of the organizations interviewed included: increased transparency in terms of air pollution statistics as well as increased public interest/participation in improving air quality in China. This highlights the unique position of Chinese ENGOs, as they are trusted by both the people and the government. We plan to explore this relationship further; in an effort to see how much potential change these ENGOs might affect. These results will then be integrated with the rest of our research team’s findings to bring about a clearer picture of China’s engagement with the problem of air pollution. Researching domestic environmental NGOs in Beijing proved to be a rewarding experience. I will try to maintain connections made during the project as I pursue further work/volunteer opportunities for the upcoming academic year, which I will spend in Wuhan, China. As I contemplate graduate school, one field which has captured my interest is environmental studies; this project has taught me about working with EGNOs and the multi-level process of engaging with and informing government as well as private businesses about harmful development externalities.

Emma Cox
As part of our research in Beijing, my partner, Mason, and I worked with the Clean Air Alliance of China (CAAC) and spoke to a number of persons involved in environmental change. We assisted the CAAC in the research of Western media’s opinion of China’s pollution and were able to create a concise document of reputable media opinions and the authors involved. In return for our hard work, they answered our questions in regards to their mission and accomplishments. Once we had completed our project for the CAAC and had our questions answered, we were able to conduct several phone interviews and attend an underground discussion of the topic by the Greenpeace organization. Each group we spoke with talked about a significant need for action and education, but also about how hard environmental progress was to accomplish due to economic and government pressure. Even still, these groups are pushing towards change and, although it may not happen quickly, change does seem to be coming. Although I was concerned about bringing six virtual strangers together for three weeks, I quickly realized that our team could not have been any better for Beijing. Each of us brought a strong set of skills and together we learned about China’s struggles with pollution and its amazing culture. Almost everyone we met, either while climbing the Great Wall or working on our projects, was fantastic and I fell in love with the culture instantly. Most people were willing to talk with us about how they saw the pollution in China and I realized the people were indeed the most important factor in change. It was so interesting to learn about people’s perspectives and what they were willing to do that I was compelled to learn more about the people themselves. I discovered so much on this trip about pollution and people and who I want to be.

Anh Hoang working on analyzing Chinese media report of Smog with the help of our translator.
Anh Hoang working on analyzing Chinese media report of Smog with the help of our translator.

Anh (Daisy) Hoang
For our project, we went out to different sites across Beijing and interviewed 101 different people regarding their viewpoints on the issue. Coming from all walks of life, all of the people we interviewed shared very different viewpoints about the subject of smog in Beijing. We also organized a few focus groups, ranging from retirees that have spent most of their life in Beijing to professionals in various fields. Regarding the plan for future work, Peter Siepiora and I will be putting all the interviewees into different categories, including age, gender, professions, birthplace, the amount of time they have spent in Beijing, and further look for a correlation with their level of concern and awareness on the subject. We will then relate the level of concern and awareness to the sources they have used to get more information regarding air pollution and their belief in the role of the government in educating citizens about this. I am attending graduate school for communication, and the research project in Beijing this past summer has further reinforced my decision to pursue a career in this field. Interviewing is an essential skill in the communication field, and we were fortunate to be able to pull a large amount of data through our interaction with people from all walks of life in Beijing. Working in the communication field in the future, I will need to evaluate the complexities and various elements of the interviewees’ pool. This project has given me the chance to sharpen my skills regarding the selection of the interviewees, the filtering of their responses, and the application of their responses to our research.

Peter Siepiora
My teammate and I have conducted interviews with 101 Beijing people on their views about smog in Beijing. We also collected data on media reports of this issue. After categorizing each individual, finding out their level of concern and knowledge about pollution, and looking at the various responses that each individual has given us, we will use that information and see how it correlates to the information that is present to the Beijing people. Once a correlation is found, we will be able to begin constructing an idea as to how to describe Beijing citizen’s perceptions of polluted air. With all the varying experiences, I have come to a different understanding of what I want to accomplish with my future. Previously, I have wanted to take up a career in practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine, which I still want to do; however, I believe that now will be a good time for me to work with international communication and relations before I decide to completely commit myself to practicing Chinese medicine. I found that being able to get information from another country in their native tongue leaves less room for miscommunication. One of the final things that really expanded my awareness of the smog in Beijing was understanding that there is a lot of miscommunication. What we hear in the United States is not always what is really going on in Beijing, and the same is true for the other nations of the world. I want to be able to reduce the amount of miscommunication that exists.

Aubrey Waddick attending an international workshop organized by the International Council on Clean Transportation
Aubrey Waddick attending an international workshop organized by the International Council on Clean Transportation

Aubrey Waddick
From the research I have collected thus far some data patterns are emerging among environmental INGOs in China. For example, almost all the groups interviewed were developing media outreach strategies, hiring PR representatives, and even hosting media sponsored events. This emergent movement towards the media coincides with the international focus on Chinese air quality, especially in urban areas. I believe these two events are connected, and that INGOs are utilizing the media because air pollution is such a visible and sensitive issue. Moving forward, I will further develop this observation, solidifying this observation from correlation to causation. Apart from the purely academic, this trip has profoundly changed the course of my life. This summer in Beijing has inspired me to pursue further studies in East Asia and sustainable development. I have begun taking Chinese language classes at school, and even passed out of the first level. I am also currently exploring graduate programs focusing on sustainable development. One program in particular is actually run through Peking University, where our trips translators study. Through the generosity of the Freeman Foundation I was exposed to a deeply fascinating and fulfilling line of work.