Environmental Risk Communication in China
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Environmental Risk Communication in China

Actors, Issues and Governance

Jia Dai, Fanxu Zeng

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eBook - ePub

Environmental Risk Communication in China

Actors, Issues and Governance

Jia Dai, Fanxu Zeng

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Información del libro

The role of media is becoming increasingly important as globalization has developed. Given fast social transformation and technological development in China, the consequent environmental and health risks demand citizens integrate the communication and prevention of such risks as a significant part of their daily life.

This book systematically discusses the communication process of typical environmental risk issues, and the complex interaction among multiple actors, including the public, media, experts, non-governmental organizations, and government in contemporary China. From a media-centered perspective, it applies major theories in the field of environmental and risk communication, and uses a variety of empirical research methods to unravel the complicated and unique experience of communication and governance. Combining theoretical reflections with real-life examples of Chinese scenarios, the authors not only encourage a dialogue between Western and Chinese academia but also inspire students and practitioners to apply risk communication theories to solving real-life problems.

The book will appeal to students, scholars, and practitioners of risk and environmental communication studies.

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Part I The public

1 The public perception of risks*

DOI: 10.4324/9781003214823-1
* An earlier version of this chapter was published in: Zeng, F., Dai, J., & Wang, Y (2015). 曾繁旭, 戴佳, 王宇琦. Jishu fengxian vs. ganzhi fengxian: Chuanbo guocheng yu fengxian shehui fangda 技术风险 vs. 感知风险: 传播过程与风险社会放大, Modern Communication 现代传播, 3: 40–46. The content has been modified for this chapter.
The actual risk of an event is not always consistent with how the public perceives that risk (Covello & Sandman, 2001). In recent years, we have witnessed an increasing number of “low-risk” environmental projects which have triggered high levels of public anger. The process through which low-risk projects generate high-risk perceptions is referred to as the “social amplification of risk” (Kasperson et al., 1988). This chapter applies this concept to the exploration of the mechanism of risk-induced social amplification through two examples of local public opposition to nuclear power plants in two cities in Shandong: opposition to the Shidaowan plant in Rongcheng (“Shidaowan”), and to the Hongshiding plant in Rushan (“Hongshiding”).
Through in-depth interviews, content analysis, and discourse analysis, we have discovered that risks are amplified mainly through the influence of three factors: information processing, institutional structure, and individual response. To be specific, information processing refers to the fact that the information competition among traditional and new media, and between experts and opinion leaders, determines the direction of risk transmission. Institutional structure in this context involves backroom deals made by the local government, information control, and lack of social group involvement in the decision-making process. This may generate public mistrust in the government and thus lead to the formation of an “oppositional interpretation” when information is presented (Frewer, 2010). In terms of individual response, public anger upon acquiring information and the stigma of nuclear power projects have also led to risk amplification.

Technical risk versus perceived risk

In July 2013, the Heshan nuclear fuel project plan in Guangdong province triggered public skepticism and mass protests, which resulted in its discontinuation (Chapter 11). However, according to experts’ risk assessment, the production of nuclear fuel does not involve nuclear reactions, and thus leads to no risk of high radiation, despite what the public believed. Exemplified by cases like these, the gap between technical risk assessment and public risk perception is growing, and brings certain difficulties to risk communication (Slovic, 1993).
Scholars believe that risk consists of two dimensions. The first is the physical aspect of risk, for which quantifiable measures can be made; that is, the technicality of risk. The second dimension comprises the psychological and mental aspects; that is, the perception of risk (Stevens, 2008). Sandman (2003) has introduced the concepts of “outrage” to explain the source of the difference between the two dimensions. Specifically, hazard is a technical component of risk assessment which measures the magnitude and possibility of risk; by contrast, outrage is a non-technical component of risk which involves the combination of social and emotional factors such as social values, norms, trust, and fear. A project or event with a relatively low technical risk level may be perceived as a high-risk project or event when encountered by an angry crowd.
The social amplification of risk undoubtedly poses a challenge to risk communication and social stability (Kasperson et al., 1988). China, in transition, is particularly sensitive to risk due to various political and social conflicts; therefore, buffering and reducing risks is extremely important. With projects and events that have a relatively low level of technical risk, the government and relevant enterprises should guide and direct the perceived risk through various communication mechanisms to minimize risk amplification.
At the same time, in the current context of China, where perceived risk and technical risk are usually out of touch with one another, very few scholars have used risk amplification theory to explore the internal mechanisms of, and reasons for, the gap between the two. Existing research is often limited to the information processes, such as the role of interpersonal communication (Cui & Ma, 2013) or the attributes of media information (Qiu, 2013) in relation to risk amplification.
This chapter attempts to combine the micro and macro processes of risk amplification. It not only examines the media’s framing of risk information, but also looks at multiple factors, such as social institutional structures and individual reactions, to explore the complex mechanism of risk amplification. Specifically, this chapter takes as its main case studies two anti-nuclear actions, namely, that of Yintan property owners against the construction of the Rushan Hongshiding nuclear power plant near Yintan, and of Rongcheng residents against the construction of the Shidaowan nuclear power plant in 2013. Along with media content analysis, our interviews with opinion leaders and local residents help to demonstrate the paradoxical logic in cognition of nuclear power issues, and seek to understand the causes and mechanisms of risk amplification. Research questions include “How is the process of risk amplification formed?” and “Why do public perceptions of risk and actual technical risk differ from one another?”

Social amplification of risk

The social amplification of risk means that relatively small risk events sometimes lead to large-scale public attention and major social impacts (Kasperson et al., 1988). The ambiguity of this definition comes from the subjective nature of risk magnitude assessment. The original state of a risk being “relatively small” is hard to define. Therefore, this chapter integrates Stevens’ (2008) discussion of risk components, and defines risk amplification as the process of “perceived risk exceeding technical risk.” In other words, regardless of the actual magnitude of risk, if the perceived risk is significantly higher than its technical risk, we consider that risk amplification has occurred. Since information processes, institutional structures, social group behavior, and individual reactions all shape the social experience of risk (Kasperson et al., 1988), it is crucial to analyze all factors when trying to understand the social mechanism of risk amplification.

Information processes

Regarding how information processes triggers risk amplification, Kasperson et al. (1988) have suggested that information flow acts as the main driving force for risk amplification. Its main attributes are “volume, the degree to which information is disputed, the extent of dramatization, and the symbolic connotations of the information” (p. 184). For example, the processes of risk assessment are affected by complex interpretation models, resulting in different risk assessments and competing scenarios among scientists, which could lead to information disputes and risk amplification (Schütz, 2005). In addition, public perceptions of, and attitudes toward, risks vary according to a wide range of social, psychological, and cultural variables, such as personal interest, the spread of rumors, and social trust (Kimsky & Golding, 1992).

Institutional structure

Construction projects with environmental impacts are often closely tied to information confidentiality in China. From the perspective of local governments, the controversial aspects of environmental policies and construction information may cause panic and affect local stability if they become available to the public. Therefore, the progress of the establishment and implementation of such projects is usually highly confidential and dealt with under minimal supervision, sometimes resulting in under-the-table deals (Sun, L., 2012). Local government’s one-sided pursuit of political and economic achievements, and the institutional tendency to abandon public responsibility, provide great motivation for such clandestine operations.
In Western society, social groups often serve as the base point of the assessment of risk management (Kasperson et al., 1988); policy-making also involves the opinions of these groups. However, given that civil society is not yet fully mature in China, the existing institutional structure has restricted independent voices and the participation of social groups such as NGOs. Therefore, in order to maintain their legitimacy, environmental NGOs or other civil organizations have had to be cautious in the face of public policy (Zeng, 2012). The lack of a participatory role for these groups means that the information and decision-making process is mainly controlled by the government and enterprises, and few voices are heard from third parties.

Individual reaction

The public’s lack of professional and technical knowledge, the gap in interest appeals, and the differences in risk information assessment and interpretation contribute to the possibility, and the level, of risk amplification, which results in panic (Hocke, 2006) and the stigmatization of risk information (Edelstein, 1988).
Covell and Sandman (2001) have used the concept of the “outrage factor” to explain which factors influence people’s judgments about risk. Outrage factors are not only the factors that enrage people, but also factors that affect people’s perception of risk. They involve the psychological mechanism through which people process risk information, such as whether it is related to personal interests or whether it is controllable by individuals, along with social factors such as historical accidents and the volume of media coverage. In addition, the public’s personal experience of risk and familiarity with risk are the key factors that affect risk amplification (Kuhar et al., 2009).

The Shidaowan and Hongshiding nuclear plants in Shandong

This chapter presents two cases: citizens’ opposition to the Rongcheng Shidaowan nuclear power plant, and to the Rushan Hongshiding nuclear power plant, both in Shandong. It examines the social amplification mechanism of environmental risks under the following conditions: first, Shandong provincial government planned three nuclear power plants along its 120 km coastline. The locations for the Shidaowan and Hongshiding plants were both within 100 km of downtown Weihai city (both Rongcheng city and Rushan city are under the jurisdiction of Weihai). The intensive nuclear power construction plan, and the fact that the nuclear power plant was close to a civilian area, were highly controversial, and made the “anti-nuclear” movement very salient. This provides a basis for us to examine the public’s perception of the risk of nuclear power projects.
Second, the causes of risk amplification mentioned in the previous literature, such as information processing, institutional structure, social group behavior and individual reactions, are all reflected in both cases. While our focus is on exploring the role and significance of the media in risk amplification, considerations of institutional, social, and individual factors were still included in order to provide an enriched understanding of risk amplification mechanisms.
Finally, as the first of China’s nuclear power projects to be put on hold due to opposition from the public, the Hongshiding project is seen as a milestone in the anti-nuclear movement. Looking at the progress of the movement, we found that the public showed a great degree of outrage, which triggered a large-scale social struggle, and affected the decision-making process around environmental planning.
This research mainly used semi-structured in-depth interviews and content analysis as research methods. In-depth interviews with key actors and key opinion leaders, related to the nuclear plant projects, were conducted to explore the logic and evolution of their actions. Each interview was about two hours in length and was recorded with permission. The main interviewee information can be seen in Table 1.1. Of the interviewees, Bin Che (posting as @My Weihai) and Huijun Wu (posting as @Huashitoue) were the opinion leaders most active on social media Sina Weibo. On this platform, they opposed nuclear power experts and builders, fought against the project construction in Weihai. Property owner Wolfman, who was also the site administrator for the Number One Beach in the World (tianxia diyi tan) forum set up by residents in Yintan, a coastal tourist resort located in Rushan city, was also a key actor in the Rushan anti-nuclear movement.
Table 1.1 In-depth interview description
Type of interview
Date of interview
Location of interview
Bin Che (posting as @ My Weihai)
Yuanye Advertising Co., Ltd.
In person
July 26, 2013
Weihai, Shandong
Huijun Wu (posting as @Huashitoue
Shandong Kunhe Indstrial Co., Ltd.
In person
July 26, 2013
Weihai, Shandong
Yintan property owner; Site administrator for the Number One Beach in the World forum
In person
July 28, 2013
Weihai, Shandong
At the same time, we tried to understand media practice and its impact on the process of risk amplification through content analysis of new and traditional media. This chapter also presents different research questions and designs for the risk-amplification mechanism in different stages. See Table 1.2 for details.
Table 1.2 Research design at various stages of risk amplification
Factors affecting risk amplification
Research focus
Keywords searched
Retrieval time period
Number of samples
Information process
Construction of Nuclear Power Issues in Traditional Media
Baidu News (Traditional Media)
Rushan Hongshiding nuclear power
December 1, 2007–December 31, 2007


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series Page
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Contents
  7. Figures
  8. Tables
  9. Foreword
  10. Introduction: Studying environmental risk communication in China
  11. PART I: The public
  12. PART II: The media
  13. PART III: The experts
  14. PART IV: The NGOs
  15. PART V: The government
  16. Conclusion: Rethinking environmental risk communication and governance in China
  17. References
  18. Index
Estilos de citas para Environmental Risk Communication in China

APA 6 Citation

Dai, J., & Zeng, F. (2021). Environmental Risk Communication in China (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/3061768/environmental-risk-communication-in-china-actors-issues-and-governance-pdf (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Dai, Jia, and Fanxu Zeng. (2021) 2021. Environmental Risk Communication in China. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/3061768/environmental-risk-communication-in-china-actors-issues-and-governance-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Dai, J. and Zeng, F. (2021) Environmental Risk Communication in China. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/3061768/environmental-risk-communication-in-china-actors-issues-and-governance-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Dai, Jia, and Fanxu Zeng. Environmental Risk Communication in China. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.