Green Politics in China: Environmental Governance and State-Society Relations by Daniel Pomerants

CORN November 2014 Edition.


Zhang, Joy Y. and Michael Barr. Green Politics in China: Environmental Governance and State-Society Relations. London: Pluto Press, 2013.

Early scholarship on the environment, precipitated by the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, tended to focus on the role of the state, institutions, and regimes in addressing international environmental problems. Eminent researchers like Falk (1971), Sprout and Sprout (1971), Young (1981), Haas (1990), Litfin (1994), Wapner (1996), Bernstein (2001), Andonova (2004), Betsill and Corell (2008), and Bulkeley et. al. (2014) have made the natural sciences more available to the social sciences in analyzing the human impact on the environment, and how best to regulate this, amidst the growing importance to the state of the politics and governance of climate change.

While much of this work seeks to address the relationship between the state and civil society in Western Europe and North America, Zhang and Barr, in Green Politics in China: Environmental Governance and State-Society Relations (2013), take this a step further in a revealing study of the way in which the Chinese state addresses grassroots environmental movements.

Through fieldwork and dozens of interviews with 14 different organizations on the ground conducted between 2011 and 2012, the authors provide readers with a glimpse into the world of Chinese environmentalism. Important to the field of environmental studies is that this research is fairly inclusive in regard to who was interviewed including registered and underground NGOs, student associations, and research institutes.

The authors’ research is tightly-packed (159 pages with bibliography and index included) over five well-organized chapters detailing their fieldwork. A brief introduction lays out the themes of the work, including: perceptions of rights and responsibilities in environmental conflict, the role of multiple identities of actors, and rule-setting in the competition for political influence. Chapter one builds on this framework to question who might be to blame for the lack of environmental accountability in China. Chapter two focuses on the possibilities for raising environmental consciousness in China, while chapter three illustrates the power of grassroots environmental organizations to mobilize and successfully challenge illegal and environmentally damaging activity. The role of issue framing emerges in chapter four, which details how the current political context in China demands that civil society actors are portrayed either as rebels or conformists in their interactions with the government. Finally, both chapter five and the conclusion investigate how the Chinese government, under its 12th Five-Year Plan, has declared its intention to bolster environmental protection in an attempt to become an “ecological civilization” committed to conservation amidst industrialization.

Throughout the book, the authors’ focus remains on the intriguing relationship between civil society and the strength of the state apparatus. Specifically, they are concerned with how NGOs can have an impact on environmental policy in China, particularly through public education. While environmental governance as a field of study demands further work in this area, their research on this aspect of environmental activism is an important contribution.

At the heart of what the authors discuss is the turning of the abstract and the ideal into a reality. The tacit acceptance of environmental degradation (from soil contamination leading to poor crop yields and thus poor nutrition, to sub-standard air quality, deforestation, land resource shortages, and contaminated water supplies) in favour of unrestrained industrialization has been the norm in the past. However, what the authors have witnessed is the growth of organized individual and collective grassroots activism opening up avenues through which citizens can affect policy change within a more inclusive bargaining process which takes Chinese civil society actors as a serious partner in state policy-making.

Although examples of successful public education strategies deployed by environmental groups were extensively discussed, less attention was given to those strategies which proved to be unsuccessful. Inclusion of these empirics may have suggested more about the current limits on the relationship of Chinese civil society with the government. Still, Zhang and Barr provide a stark reminder of just how complicated this process of civic engagement with the state can be and how limited the successes of environmental activists have been given the staggering number of corporations and international influences that partake in environmental degradation in China, and the significant regional differentiation within China that could hinder mobilizing civil society towards common environmental goals.

Zhang and Barr provide ample material concerning the dynamic challenges China and its citizens continue to face in balancing the competing interests of a growing civil society, China’s authoritarian state, and the prospects of melding continued economic development with rising demands for greater environmental protection. Their work suggests new directions for the study of environmental governance in, and about China, as well as the study of environmental governance more generally.



Daniel Pomerants is currently a PhD student in Political Science studying International Relations and Canadian Politics at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the Circumpolar North, environmental governance, and sovereignty.
He can be reached at daniel.pomerants [at]




Andonova, Liliana B. (2004). Transnational Politics of the Environment: The European Union and Environmental Policy in Central and Eastern Europe. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bernstein, Steven (2001). The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Betsill, Michele M., and Elizabeth Correll (2008). NGO Diplomacy: The Influence of Nongovernmental Organizations and International Environmental Negotiations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bulkeley, Harriet, Liliana Andonova, Michele M. Betsill, Daniel Compagnon, Thomas Hale, Matthew J. Hoffmann, Peter Newel, Matthew Paterson, Charles Roger, and Stacy D. VanDeveer (2014). Transnational Climate Change Governance. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Falk, Richard (1971). This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival. New York: Vintage.

Haas, Peter M. (1990). Saving the Mediterranean: The Politics of International Environmental Cooperation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Litfin, Karen T. (1994). Ozone Discourses: Science and Politics in Global Environmental Cooperation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sprout Harold H., and Margaret T. Sprout (1971). Toward A Politics of the Planet Earth. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.

Wapner, Paul (1996). Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Young, Oran R. (1981). Natural Resources and the State: The Political Economy of Resource Management. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zhang, Joy Y., and Michael Barr (2013). Green Politics in China: Environmental Governance and State-Society Relations. London: Pluto Press.

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