This chapter examines the phenomenon of urban Chinese opposition to so-called ‘locally-unwanted-land-uses’ including chemical plants and waste incinerators. It argues that mounting contention is rooted in shortcomings in the planning, decision-making and regulatory processes, which are manifested in low trust in the state. These environmental disputes are narrow and localized, but raise questions about citizen participation, accountability and transparency that transcend the immediate local environment. However, the prospects for a ‘scaling-up’ of protest into a bigger movement appear bleak. Protests that potentially go beyond a narrow local focus, such as anti-smog contention, are liable to trigger state suppression.
This chapter argues that environmental risks present a growing threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political legitimacy. One of the main ways this is manifested is through growing societal pressure on the CCP to demonstrate that it can protect its citizens from such risks. In this sense, risk resilience is inseparable from CCP resilience. Yet China’s system for pre-empting and managing environmental risks has long been viewed as a work in progress, and recent incidents, such as the series of massive explosions in Tianjin’s container port that resulted in over 100 fatalities, highlight the scale of the challenge facing the Chinese authorities. This chapter explores these challenges and analyses some of the ways in which the party-state has responded. Although the Chinese central government enacted a plethora of laws to protect the environment, these are in tension with (and often subservient to) the cadre responsibility system (CRS) which sets targets for officials and which, until recently, prioritised economic growth over environmental protection. This has changed somewhat, as stringent energy efficiency goals have become priority targets under the CRS. However, this chapter highlights problems associated with this approach including unintended outcomes. This chapter then looks at attempts to decentre environmental risk management through regulatory pluralisation. Yet, paradoxically, whilst most analyses argue that greater public involvement is required in order to overcome contemporary environmental risks, and although tentative steps towards facilitating more public support in environmental regulation have been taken, the CCP’s suspicion of non-state actors continues to limit their potential in managing environmental risks. Overall, this chapter concludes that deeper systemic change is needed in order to effectively manage environmental risks.
Thomas Ferguson and Robert Johnson
Ray Yep, June Wang and Thomas Johnson
Urban China has undergone seismic change in its physical and socioeconomic landscape over the last four decades. Urban life in Mao’s China was simply an extension of the regime’s faith in the superiority of teleological planning, and Chinese cities were given a central role in the socialist industrialization programme. All aspects of urban existence were organized along the imperative of production. Urban architectural landscapes were characterized by buildings of monotonous design and prosaic outlook. The ethos of egalitarianism inherent in Soviet practices and the functionality logic of Le Corbusier’s modernist principles of design determined the allocation of space. Scarcity was permanent, with the rationing system effectively restricting personal consumption to subsistence level, lest excessive personal indulgence misappropriate resources for unproductive purposes and thus decelerate the pace of the industrialization programme. Urban life was in general highly organized, disciplined and mundane, with expression of individuality severely circumscribed by politics and material conditions. Yet most urban dwellers probably felt blessed with their ‘privilege’ of residing in the cities, aware as they were of the deprivation and desperation of the Chinese peasantry. The concomitant operation of centralized control over employment through the work unit system (danwei) and the unified job allocation arrangement, and the effective regulation of personal movement through the residential permit system (hukou), powerfully sustained the impermeability of the rural-urban divide.