To better understand the political opportunity that has opened up in China for public participation in environmental protection, articles containing keywords relating to environmental protection, civil society, and the intersection of the two were analyzed in the newspaper People’s Daily -- a Chinese newspaper renowned for representing the ideas of the central government. The study period spanned from the beginning of economic and political reform in 1979 to 2010. Quantitative analysis involved tracking the number of articles containing the keywords through the period of study, and qualitative analysis involved in depth readings of the articles to uncover changing context, discourse, and rhetoric. Examinations of People’s Daily reveal increasing awareness of environmental issues and greater discourse about civil society, and suggest that central government endorsement of public participation can trace its origins to environmental protection. Furthermore, research suggests that calls for public participation in a specific situation such as environmental protection and consumer protection can snowball into other contexts and contribute to the general expansion of the political space for civic activism.