Mainlanders’ concerns about the environment and the wealth gap have surged following a year of high-profile pollution incidents and scores of corruption arrests, a new survey found.
The Pew Research Centre survey found that 47 per cent considered air pollution a “very big problem”, up from 36 per cent last year. Some 38 per cent thought food safety was a major concern. Although down slightly from last year, that represented a 26 point increase from 2008.
Respondents also cited financial inequality as a major concern, with 52 per cent saying the gap between rich and poor was serious – up from 41 per cent five years ago. A similar percentage described political corruption as a big problem, an issue that has come to the fore with the trials of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai .
“The leap in concern about pollution came in the same year as there were incidents that got an enormous amount of attention in and out of China,” said Bruce Stokes, director of Pew’s Global Attitudes Project. “These included the dead pigs found floating in Huangpu River in Shanghai and the air pollution stories in Beijing.”
Mainlanders, however, hold some of the most optimistic views in the world when it comes to the economy. Some 80 per cent expected the country’s economic situation to improve in the next 12 months, the highest rate among 39 countries polled by Pew this year.
The survey involved face-to-face interviews with 3,200 respondents between March 4 and April 6.
William Yu, an environmental economist and chief executive officer of the World Green Organisation, said that as people became more affluent, they were more likely to care about social and environmental issues.
“The middle class in China is larger than the entire US population, and is more likely now to be better educated than before,” he said. “But even those who would avoid protesting over ‘sensitive’ political issues are likely to get angry if they don’t have access to clean water or if their children’s health is suffering.”
As for rising concern about economic inequality, Sandy To, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Hong Kong, said that media fixation on the lives of the rich and famous could be a factor in growing frustration about the rich-poor gap.
“There’s a lot of envy and negativity because many people might not be living under the poverty line nowadays, but middle class wages won’t allow them to buy a home or to emulate the lifestyle of brand names and banqueting that is increasingly idealised even in state media,” To said.