Citizen Complaints as Environmental Indicators: Evidence from China

26 Pages Posted: 20 Apr 2016

See all articles by David Wheeler

David Wheeler

World Bank - Policy Research Department

Susmita Dasgupta

World Bank - Development Research Group (DECRG)

Date Written: January 1, 1997


China's experience shows the problem of relying on citizen complaints for guidance in addressing pollution problems when monitoring resources are scarce. Visible pollutants get too much attention and communities with low levels of literacy get too little.

China's environmental regulators respond to more than 100,000 citizen complaints a year. The complaints process undoubtedly provides useful information and helps encourage community participation in environmental policy. But it also directs a big share of inspection resources to areas where people tend to complain.

After analyzing provincial data for 1987-93, Dasgupta and Wheeler find the subsequent allocation of resources biased, in terms of social welfare. The incidence of complaints reflects potential abatement benefits and the intensity of exposure to highly visible pollutants. However, citizen complaints seem not to be affected by harmful pollutants that are less visible. And basic education seems to have a strong independent effect on propensity to complain. Relying on complaints alone would lead to inappropriately low allocation of inspection resources to less-educated, relatively silent regions.

Citizens' incomplete information creates the biggest problem for regulators who rely on complaints for guidance. To compensate for this problem, say Dasgupta and Wheeler, agencies should invest in public environmental education targeted especially to communities with less schooling. They might also explore targeted outreach programs, since poorly educated people may also be more timid about complaining. More important, Dasgupta and Wheeler recommend giving priority to technical risk assessments in determining resource allocation. Over time, citizen complaints should decline if regulators establish strategic priorities and pursue them systematically, while maintaining close contact with the communities affected.

This paper - a product of the Environment, Infrastructure, and Agriculture Division, Policy Research Department - is part of a larger effort in the department to understand the economics of industrial pollution control in developing countries. The study was funded by the Bank's Research Support Budget under research project The Economics of Industrial Pollution Control in Developing Countries (RPO 680-20).

Suggested Citation

Wheeler, David and Dasgupta, Susmita, Citizen Complaints as Environmental Indicators: Evidence from China (January 1, 1997). Available at SSRN:

David Wheeler

World Bank - Policy Research Department ( email )

1818 H Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20433
United States


Susmita Dasgupta (Contact Author)

World Bank - Development Research Group (DECRG) ( email )

1818 H. Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20433
United States
202-473-2679 (Phone)
202-522-3230 (Fax)


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