‘Back to China’: what are barriers to enduring ‘green’ behaviour change among Chinese students returning home from the UK?

Research Highlighted:

Tyers, R. (2020). Barriers to enduring pro-environmental behaviour change among Chinese students returning home from the UK: a social practice perspective. Environmental Sociology, 1-12. doi:10.1080/23251042.2020.1855885

Dr Roger Tyers, University of Nottingham, UK

In 2015, colleagues and I carried out primary focus group research, and found that a period of study in the UK can positively influence the pro-environmental (‘green’) behaviours of Chinese students. Our participants said that while living in the UK they recycled more, reduced littering, and used less domestic energy. This was not because these Chinese students suddenly became heavily engaged with green norms in the UK, but mainly due to a simple but powerful desire to ‘fit in’ with peers and staff in their new ‘communities of practice’: on-campus, in halls, and homestays. Our findings were published in Sociological Research Online (Tyers et al, 2018) and summarised in a separate NRCEM summary here.

Those findings implied follow-up research: if students changed some green behaviours during their stay in the UK, what happened after they returned home? So, in 2019, funded by an ESRC post-doctoral fellowship, I carried out fieldwork in China – using focus groups with Chinese people who had previously studied in the UK – to find out.*

My forty-two participants were located in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Ningbo, and recruited through alumni societies and my own networks. Most now had white-collar jobs in sectors like Finance, IT, Education or Administration.

When asked if their green behaviours and attitudes changed during their time in the UK, participants echoed our previous findings. They said that expectations around energy usage or waste were much stronger in their UK communities in the UK than in those in China, and this influenced them to change too.

“I had a close friend called Nicky; a student from the Czech Republic. I remember she was carrying an empty plastic bottle; she kept it for the whole day because she wanted to put it in the recycle bin. So, I was like, “Why are you still holding this big bottle? Just throw it away in the bin”. She said, “I want to put it in the recycle bin”. So, she kept it for the whole day; you can’t imagine a Chinese person doing that. I do better sorting now because I try to make sure this recycled stuff will be in better use in the future.”

(Female, Hangzhou)

When participants were asked if greener behaviours had endured after they returned to China, responses were far more mixed. While a few participants said they continued to recycle, or to re-use plastic shopping bags after coming home, most said that any green behaviours adopted in the UK were soon lost. The green peer pressure that participants experienced in the UK was suddenly absent in China, where being green often seemed pointless when faced with ‘free-riders’ who didn’t seem to care or understand about, say, sorting their domestic waste correctly.

Perhaps most interesting were the wider barriers to green behaviour in Chinese society which emerged. These, despite my small, unrepresentative sample, might be generalisable beyond these ex-students. Such barriers include the power of ‘mianzi’ and ‘guanxi’, media and government discourses, and an absence of ‘post-materialist’ values.

Mianzi may be translated as ‘face’ – a  desire to maintain favourable self-esteem and project an image of wealth and prestige (Sun et al, 2014). Many participants reported that they and their peers are likely to spend money on luxurious items such as high-performance cars, and noted that the norms around these purchases were quite different in the UK.

 ‘People choose smaller cars in the UK. Here people prefer larger cars . . . I was very surprised in a good way that people, even though they are getting good pay, still go for smaller cars, I think it’s very environmentally friendly. That’s a very good thing for me . . . In China, if you are having more money definitely you’ll get a much bigger car. Sometimes you don’t even need that much size.’

(Female, Shanghai)

Many said that a huge problem in China is one of waste, seen as a consequence of ‘guanxi’. Guanxi literally means ‘interpersonal connections’. Maintaining connections often requires sharing food or giving gifts (Sun et al, 2014). Many participants admitted that such activities are often unnecessarily ostentatious and wasteful but are vital to maintaining friendship bonds or growing professional networks.

‘In China we really have a big get-together, lunch together or dinner, it’s quite lenient that if you can’t finish your food, you can take the leftovers. It’s a shame but people don’t really do it, it means “I’m poor, so give me some food” ’

(Female, Shanghai)

At a broader level, others noted that civil society conditions differed greatly between the UK and China. Two participants, working for a Chinese environmental NGO, observed that NGOs must be cautious about public-facing campaigns, especially since the introduction of a restrictive Foreign NGO Law in 2017 (Standaert, 2017). Instead, many NGOs prefer quiet engagement with government and businesses. This was a topical theme. Just before data collection, the student-led ‘Fridays for the Future’ campaign was active in many western countries, and in Asian cities such as Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong. But in mainland China this campaign was practically non-existent.

‘You know the students are doing protesting things, that would never happen in China, like they come out of school and they make a poster and here the parents would never allow this.’

(Female, Ningbo)

In terms of media and government discourses, participants said that the Chinese government is increasingly talking about environmental protection. Several quoted President Xi’s mantra that ‘Green Hills and Clear Waters are Gold & Silver Mountains’. But this discourse is usually about explaining or justifying state policies, rather than emphasising citizens’ individual responsibility – a theme more prevalent in liberal western democracies (Chen and Lees, 2018).

Finally, many participants said that because of the primacy of economic (‘materialist’) concerns, China is not yet ready for rapid moves towards sustainability (a ‘post-materialist’ concern). Individually, many said they were preoccupied with job insecurity or the costs of raising a family, while seeing the government’s main role as raising living standards, not environmental protection. That said, the increasing visibility of problems like air pollution might be changing this, as one participant eloquently discussed:

“Sixty years [ago] we were farmers, so we’ve had a lot of development in the past forty years. Now we’re at a stage where we care more about how much we can spend, not about other things . . . it’s like in the UK in the Industrial Revolution. You guys didn’t care about the environment too . . . But everything takes time, you have to get hurt to change. You have to see the ugliness, the dirty things, to make yourself change.”

(male, Shanghai)

To conclude, this study firstly hints at the power of social norms for quickly changing (green) behaviour in a new country. However, norms can disappear just as quickly as they appear, as seems to have been the case with this group of Chinese graduates following their UK studies.

Secondly, and despite its limited scope, this study suggests some specifically Chinese socio-cultural barriers to greener consumption behaviour: ‘mianzi’ and ‘guanxi’, media and government discourses, and a lack of post-materialist values. Arguably, the responsibility of individuals (and not, say, fossil fuel companies and government infrastructure) towards sustainability has been overstated in western liberal discourses. But it remains the case that changes to individual consumption behaviour – the ways we travel, eat, warm our homes, buy and dispose of products – are vital. It is possible that China may pursue an ‘eco-authoritarian’ approach to this problem, using sanctions and laws rather than ‘soft’ approaches seen so far in liberal democracies. In any case, if and how a country of China’s size and influence fosters more sustainable modes of consumption will be of critical importance in global efforts at decarbonisation and sustainability.

*To reduce the carbon footprint of this fieldwork, I opted to take the train to China, rather than fly. You can read about that decision and its consequences here.

Author Bio

Dr Roger Tyers is a Teaching Associate in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Southampton. His research interests are on behaviour change and public policy, especially regarding sustainability, transport and energy. He can be contacted via R.Tyers@soton.ac.uk or on Twitter @RogerTyersUK


Chen, G. C. and Lees, C. (2018) ‘The New, Green, Urbanization in China: Between Authoritarian Environmentalism and Decentralization’, Chinese Political Science Review. Springer Singapore, 3(2), pp. 212–231. doi: 10.1007/s41111-018-0095-1.

Standaert, M. (2017) As It Looks to Go Green, China Keeps a Tight Lid on Dissent, Yale Environment 360. Available at: https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-it-looks-to-go-green-china-keeps-a-tight-lid-on-dissent  (Accessed: 20 August 2019).

Sun, G., D’Alessandro, S. and Johnson, L. (2014) ‘Traditional culture, political ideologies, materialism and luxury consumption in China’, International Journal of Consumer Studies, 38(6), pp. 578–585. doi: 10.1111/ijcs.12117.

Tyers, R. et al. (2018) ‘China-to-UK Student Migration and Pro-environmental Behaviour Change: A Social Practice Perspective’, Sociological Research Online, 42(4), pp. 1–23. doi: 10.1177/1360780418794194.

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