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China bowing to public outcry over environment


This picture taken on January 12, 2013 shows two men walking along a railway line in Beijing in dense smog.

Rapid development at the expense of China's natural environment has become a major cause for discontent in the world's second largest economy, but now the government is finally bowing to public outcry, says a leading environmentalist.

Ma Jun, who is the director of Beijing-based non-profit organization Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, told CNBC that it's become very difficult for the government to either cover up or use "too much" force to stop mass protests over China's deteriorating environment.

"At the end of the day the government, local government all bow to public pressure," Ma said. "Over the past 10 years, we have seen the Chinese government gradually changing its development strategy. The government realized, I hope, the environment matters."

Public anger over bad air and water quality in China has been rising in recent years, resulting in mass demonstrations. In January, for example, Beijing's poor air quality was labeled unhealthy by World Health Organization standards and was the topic of discussions at several online forums.

(Read more: Pollution 'worst on record' in Beijing)

More Transparency Needed

Responding to public outrage, the government has recently introduced a series of measures — including making public the level of air pollution in Beijing, and also plans to impose emission restrictions on the steel, coal and petrochemicals industries, among others.

Ma, who has created a database of polluting factories in China, shaming them to clean up their act, says more transparency is needed to appease the public as awareness spreads.

(Read more: Anger at dead pigs in Shanghai River)

"The environmental problems are getting so serious here. Now people have realized that it's about the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat, so many of them are really concerned," Ma said. "I hope they [the government] understand that this is about the environment and expansion of transparency will eventually help to solve the problem."

The difference now is that people are voicing their discontent on social media, giving it a mass audience and shifting the power balance, which makes it difficult for the government to ignore, Ma added.

(Read more: This could spark China's Arab Spring)

Local government officials have approached his organization, because they worry whether their next development project will be the target of public protests, Ma said.

"I think it's all about how this new leadership will confront and tackle this new challenge," he added. "We still have gaps in our environmental governance ... It can't be resolved overnight."

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