AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 203

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Session 203: Environmental politics in Greater China: towards an interdisciplinary approach

Organizer: Simona A. Grano, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Chair: Andrea M. Riemenschnitter, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Discussant: Andrea M. Riemenschnitter, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Global interdependency among nations has increased, particularly in the past 15 years and this pattern will probably continue in the next decade. Globalisation has a unique side effect when dealing with environmental problems: China is increasingly being affected by the rest of the world’s disasters as much as it is affecting and worsening the ecological situation for faraway countries and neighbouring ones alike. Both mainland China and Taiwan have experienced rapid and sustained economic growth in the past decades which has imposed great challenges to the environmental governance of both countries. But if Taiwan has already exited its authoritarian phase where civic societies’s role was constrained and monitored, in China the situation is still difficult and green groups have just begun to play a minor role in environmental policies and governance. This said, it has to be noted that the Chinese authorities are trying to reverse the bleak environmental situation through the enactment of a series of pioneering projects, such as the establishment of a Green GDP accounting system. In a historic moment of unparalleled environmental crises, this panel intends to bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars who are studying Greater China’s environmental problems from a variety of perspectives. This panel will thus probe into a wide range of urgent topics: socialist modernization amid capitalist globalization; shifting configurations of space, locale, cityscape; as well as environmental politics and popular protests. We expect a highly innovative outlook on the field by activating synergies between social studies as well as historical, political and anthropological approaches.

Improving Environmental Accountability by “Sham” Elections: The Case of Shanghai Maglev Protests
Ching-Ping Tang, National Chengchi University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

Many observers of grassroots elections in China would criticize the invisible hand of the party and thus doubt its real impacts on the nature of the regime and governing performance. A case study on the protest against Maglev Project in Shanghai, however, indicates a subtle change in the way that the state responds to the stimulus of the society. Since grassroots elections in China have been conducted very much alike political campaigns in earlier era that emphasized formal participation (high voting rates) and consensus (high concentration rates), folks in the newly-enriched, secularized urban communities hated such political activities and tended to be indifferent in the whole process. To carry out their missions, a successful party cadre had therefore to make full use of social networks to mobilize participation. The same networks, however, have also been applied to mobilize protests against such public projects as Maglev Rail by communities. How have the local party cadres, as representatives of state, adjusted themselves to the conflicting situation? This case study indicates that the party cadres became more sympathetic to grassroots appeals after they had worked closely with community members for elections, and helped the folks by channeling their opinions upward. While introducing election mechanisms into the local governing system may not able to challenge the ruling status of the incumbent party, it improves governing accountability by galvanizing the nerve-tip of the ruling apparatus.

Dissent, Surveillance, Detainment: The New Politics of the Environment in China
Ralph A. Litzinger, Duke University, USA

The last decade and a half has witnessed the vast proliferation of environment non-governmental organizations, grass-roots civic groups, and student environmental salons in China. Competing conceptions of nature, complex processes of translation, and vexing issues of sovereignty and governance define the current environmental scene in China. The Tibetan plateau has been a major staging ground for environmental planning, advocacy, and activism. While many scholars have drawn attention to emergent forms of civil society, protests against dams, the logging ban of 1998, and the movement of polluting factories to the west of China, few have focused on the politics of surveillance and detainment. Taking the Chinese journalist Liu Jianqiang’s 2009 book, 天珠:藏人传奇 (now banned in China) as a jumping off point, this paper explores the recent detainment and sentencing of several leadings Tibetan environmentalists. Based on hushed discussions with scholars and activists close to these cases, I explore the narratives that have swarmed around these arrests, the uses and misuses of blogging, western and Chinese press coverage, and the behind the scene struggles to gain their release. At issue here is the how we understand the circulation of narratives of what went wrong, how we understand the international romance with “civil society,” and how ultimately we assess the future of local and indigenous environmental organizing on the Tibetan plateau.

Green GDP in China: The Ups and Downs of an Idea on Sustainable Growth.
Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, University of Vienna, Austria

Since the 16th Party Congress, the Chinese government has started to emphasise a development concept that reflects the overall and coordinated development of economy, society and nature. In the year 2004, the China National Statistical Bureau (NBS) and the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) launched a pilot project with two participating regions (Hainan Province and Chongqing Municipality) to establish the Green GDP accounting system. The ambitious project put China into a very unique position as no other government has ever officially designed a set of criteria to calculate in detail the quantity and value of all consumed resources and environmental damages. The first report for the year 2004 was published in 2006, albeit criticised for its technical flaws. The report for the year 2005 was scheduled for March 2007 when in July 2007 its “infinite postponement” was announced after a fierce dispute between the NBS and the SEPA. In this paper, we will first explain the conceptual and political context in which the Green GDP project is embedded. We will introduce the history of the Green GDP discussion in China until the official announcement of the postponement of the project. Finally, we will analyse the political constraints leading to the early start of the debate, its sudden deadlock and its recent revival.

Environmental governance in Taiwan: multiple levels of interaction
Simona A. Grano, University of Zurich, Switzerland

In the political arena of Taiwan, a similar trait shared by all parties, is the priority given to economic growth over environmental protection. The two main parties present in the political scene use the environment as a tool to attack each other; the DPP claiming that the KMT is irresponsible in its pro-growth stance and the KMT maintaining that the DPP is anti-business. On the other hand, Taiwan is also a place where regulators and city officials try to redress certain imbalances in the ecological environment through the enactment of a series of programs aimed at the creation of a green sustainable economy and a recycling-oriented society. Although Taiwan arguably needs civil and official collaboration on environmental protection, the implementation of an efficient system of environmental regulations has often been hindered by many actors, involved in the process of environmental governance (state, economic actors, civil society, media), whose interests greatly diverged. In this paper, we will introduce a case study dealing with the controversy surrounding the establishment of a cable car in Yangmingshan Park to explain which are the key influences governing environmental power dynamics between different agents with conflicting (and sometimes colluding) interests, and how these multiple levels of interaction are negotiated between various players. My hypothesis holds that although environmental policies are, for the most part, mandated from the top, at the local level their implementation gets altered by the interactions of these various agents.