Single, holding a leadership position at work, and living in a large city: This is the profile of the average "green" citizen of China, according to a new study. Of these traits, it's the last one that took researchers by surprise.

"One of the things we did not anticipate is the major difference between big cities and small cities,"  Jianguo Liu, a co-author of the study appearing online Jan. 18 in the journal Environmental Conservation, told LiveScience.

Residents of larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin reported engaging significantly more in environmentally friendly behavior, such as recycling plastic bags, than residents of smaller cities, Liu and colleagues found.

The study analyzed data collected in 2003 from 5,073 Chinese respondents as part of the China's General Social Survey. That survey, which is ongoing and being conducted by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and by Renmin University of China, did not have complete data on all rural regions.

Liu, who is the Rachel Carson Sustainability Chair at Michigan State University, speculated there are two reasons for the difference: Big cities experience the environmental problems first, and big-city residents have more opportunity for environmental education.

The survey asked participants whether they had engaged in one or more of six "green" behaviors in the previous year: recycling plastic bags, sorting garbage to separate recyclables, talking about environmental issues, volunteering for an environmental organization, participating in environmental education, or participating in litigation. The survey also collected a variety of demographic data.

Work also appeared to be an important factor. The analysis indicated that employed people and those in leadership positions at work reported more "green" actions than their counterparts did. This indicates that people may be exposed to the diffusion of environmental values through the workplace, the researchers write. Income, however, appeared to have only a weak effect.

The study has implications for an economy that has grown the fastest of any major nation over the past three decades, and its environment has suffered, the study's authors write. China is the world's largest contributor of carbon dioxide, atmospheric sulphur oxides and chlorofluorocarbons, the researchers write, and acid rain fell on more than a quarter of Chinese cities during the 1990s. [China's Three Gorges Dam Finally Filled]

China has a top-down culture with respect to government and policy, and past research found a lack of sense of personal responsibility, as people tended to think protecting the environment was the government's job.

This is consistent with the fact that people in leadership positions, those perceived to have more ability to effect change, were more likely to take action, the authors write.

Ultimately, the answer is a combination, Liu said.

For example, in addressing climate change, "the government is crucial to initiate a lot of policies or incentives or disincentives to steer people's actions to help the environment in the long run, and also help people and the economy," he said.

Individuals, too, need to take responsibility, he said. "In the past we tend to blame industry for environmental problems, but actually everyone has responsibility for environmental problems, because we all consume resources and generate demand for products."

You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry.