State and Society in China’s Environmental Politics
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State and Society in China’s Environmental Politics
Geall, Sam, ed. 2013. China and the Environment: The Green Revolution. London, New York: Zed Books.
Shapiro, Judith. 2012. China’s Environmental Challenges. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Zhang, Joy Y., and Michael Barr. 2013. Green Politics in China: Environmental Governance and State–Society Relations. London, UK: Pluto Press.

It is increasingly common to encounter headlines detailing China’s environmental woes and the social action that has appeared as a result. These headlines run side-by-side with stories of China’s continued economic growth and rise in global prominence. The fact that these two issues are connected is not lost on Chinese citizens or the Communist Party of China. The way these competing, though related, issues are addressed by state and society in China is of central concern to the country as well as to the global community.

Though the topic of environmental degradation and social response has been previously explored by many academics in the context of China, the issue has gained a broader audience. The three books under review generally seek to reach this broader audience and to address key tensions in China’s environmental governance, providing insight into changes in state–society relations. There has been an opening of social space in China over the last twenty years, allowing for increased public activism related to environmental issues, at a scale unimaginable even thirty years ago. The nature of this space, however, and the political context in which it has emerged, are contentious.

Judith Shapiro provides an overview of the broad spectrum of related issues involved in China’s Environmental Challenges, using a textbook format to introduce the key debates regarding environmental governance in China. Following her now seminal study Mao’s War Against Nature,1 Shapiro’s newest book draws on a historical view of environmental issues in the country; shifting [End Page 139] between the present-day, the Mao period, and dynastic China to introduce the complex historical forces at play in the contemporary setting. The book offers an introduction to the inter-related topics and actors that touch environmental governance in China, including the key drivers of environmental degradation, the role of the state, culture and identity, and civil society. Beyond providing overviews, Shapiro puts forward the argument that there are multiple contradictions to be overcome in China, including government goals related to growth and the environment, cultural understandings of human-nature relationships, and civil society activism and the desire for increased consumption.

The book begins with “big picture” items, providing an overview of the crises facing contemporary China and the actors implicated in driving pollution and governance responses. These chapters set the groundwork for the subsequent discussions, pointing to the multiple pressures found in increasing consumption, rising population, decreasing land availability, and the country’s incorporation into global supply chains. Shapiro effectively presents the key issues regarding China’s state governance system, which is fragmented and subject to vertical and horizontal competition between state bureaucracies (i.e., between and among central, provincial, and local agencies).

She includes an important digression on ideational issues in China’s long history of philosophy and national identity as they pertain to viewpoints on nature. This welcome historical perspective helps to contextualize the cultural issues at play in current environmental struggles. The book then introduces the “view from below,” describing the role of public participation. Here, Shapiro offers an overview of the types of environmental NGOs (ENGOs) operating in China, including international, government organized NGOs, as well as journalists and activists. A final chapter ties together the previous sections to expand on an environmental-justice critique of the actors involved in China’s environmental governance. Shapiro points to the displacement of pollution problems onto the less powerful, at the behest both of government and of middle-class NGO campaigns.

Sam Geall’s edited volume, China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, incorporates chapters written by a mix of academics and journalists. The book brings together contributors to chinadialogue.org, a website and organization at the forefront of translating and exhibiting works by both foreign and Chinese researchers on issues of China and the global environment. The highly accessible...