Constructing a Green Public Sphere: Environmental Activism and the Role of the Internet in China


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date27 Aug 2019


Following the rapid economic growth in the past forty years, China is facing a range of environmental problems like air and water pollution, and land contamination. Against the backdrop of rapid environmental deterioration, environmental activism began to emerge in Chinese society. The public has gradually started to play a role in environmental protection practices via environmentally-focused civic groups. Chinese environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), being the most active type of NGOs, increasingly play an important part in representing the public in the field of Chinese environmental governance. Given the potential of the Internet in facilitating the goals of environmentalists and ENGOs to overcome political constrains and promote pro-environmental discourse, this dissertation seeks to understand the ways in which new media technologies have created opportunities for the emergence of the green public sphere in China.

Consisting of issue publics, media organizations, and greenspeak (i.e., pro-environmental discourse), the Chinese green public sphere represents a new form of public engagement with environmental issues as the central concern. It predominantly relies on the Internet and ENGOs to advocate the greenspeak alongside other voices from the government and the mainstream media. This dissertation focuses on these two basic elements of Chinese green public sphere, i.e., the media and the publics, and examines the green public sphere from three levels, macro level, mezzo level (i.e., organizational level), and micro level (i.e., individual level). To understand how and to what extent news media and social media have promoted the green public sphere in China, the dissertation asks three basic research questions: (1) How much media attention do Chinese ENGOs get, and what are the organizational characteristics and social media strategies associated with news media coverage? (2) How do Chinese ENGOs elicit public attention to their messages on Weibo, and what are the communication strategies effective in triggering viral sharing of organizational messages? And (3) how is news media and social media consumption associated with citizens’ environmental participation? To answer these questions, three studies are conducted accordingly.

The first study focuses on Chinese ENGOs’ media visibility, examining how organizational characteristics, the type of environmental advocacy, and social media use behaviors are related to news media attention towards an ENGO. Using data derived from a content analysis and secondary sources, this study finds that news media favor ENGOs located in eastern China, registered, with larger staff size and focusing on national issues. Two types of advocacy, environmental activism and environmental consumerism, are found to be positively associated with media visibility. ENGOs that have official website and use Weibo can garner more media attention. More importantly, the results reveal an interaction effect of the type of NGOs. Compared with government-organized NGOs (GONGOs), grassroots NGOs will benefit more from participating in environmental consumerism activities and from having an official website. The findings have important implications by stressing the role of softer forms of participation in increasing grassroots NGOs’ media visibility, and highlighting the differences of Website, Weibo and WeChat in facilitating grassroots NGOs’ environmentalism in China.

The second study examines Chinese ENGOs’ Weibo use behaviors and the factors that contribute to the retweeting of ENGOs’ Weibo messages. Through a content analysis of ENGOs’ Weibo posts, the study finds that GONGOs and grassroots NGOs utilize different Weibo strategies. The results show that posts including a larger number of hashtags, mentions, and opinion leaders, and those charged with negative emotions are more sharable. More importantly, the study suggests that GONGOs garner more retweets when releasing messages encouraging user interaction, while grassroots NGOs benefit more from informational content and from messages advocating environmental activism and consumerism. The results shed light on understanding social media use strategies of Chinese ENGOs, and offer practical recommendations for the strategic use of Weibo in future environmental campaigns.

The third study examines how the uses of news media and social media are associated with environmental engagement in two different Chinese societies, Hong Kong and mainland China. The analysis of survey data from Hong Kong and mainland China demonstrates positive relationships between both news media use and social media use and environmental engagement. Notably, the associations are moderated by environmental interests in both Hong Kong and mainland China context, although in an opposite way. The findings have important implications for understanding the social-leveling functions of news media and the self-reinforcement effects of social media use in a semi-authoritarian society like mainland China, as well as shed light on the equalizer role of social media in Hong Kong.

In total, this dissertation adds to the literature on Chinese green public sphere by making several contributions. First, it is a systematic examination of Chinese ENGOs and their relationships with news media and social media, going beyond case-based evidence and provide a more empirically robust framework for understanding the factors influencing ENGOs’ success in gaining online and offline influence. Second, it has differentiated GONGOs and grassroots NGOs in China, and examined their strategies of social media use. Although grassroots NGOs are becoming a major force in pro-environmental advocacy in China, they are still faced with the legitimacy problems. To amplify their presence and strengthen organizational legitimacy, grassroots NGOs increasingly use official websites and social media platforms as broadcasting channels for disseminating their messages. Third, the dissertation compares the relationship between news and social media platforms with environmental participation, providing insights into their distinct roles in promoting greenspeak. Finally, the dissertation broadens the scope of environmental research in China by incorporating environmental consumerism, which embodies personalized and lifestyle-oriented environmental activities and is closely associated with the participatory and open nature of digital media.

    Research areas

  • environmental activism, green public sphere, Internet, China