This insight from Christina Larson is also quite depressing:
A few things distinguish China’s recent environmentalism history: the speed and scale of the problems, and the preference of the government to operate in top-down fashion.
Consider that the impetus for America’s environmental protection system often came from the ground up — independent journalists like Rachel Carson and George Bird Grinnell identifying failures in government policy, and powerful outside organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council suing the EPA when regulations weren’t upheld. There’s much less space for journalists and activists in China, although more than you might guess. (Hence my interest in writing for The Atlantic about Chinese reporters and grassroots leaders.)
China’s not run along Stalinist totalitarian lines anymore, so environmental degradations probably won’t reach Soviet proportions like with the Aral Sea, but the lack of political openness is going to be a real problem in this regard.