Environmental Movements in China and Their Transnational Dimensions

By Setsuko Matsuzawa

During the last quarter century, the Chinese state has been successful in repressing specific types of social movements; those which it considers to be serious threats to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. Major examples of such repression include the 1999 Falun Gong persecution and the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. Even during the period leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics the Chinese government maintained its repressive stance, despite TAN (Transnational Advocacy Network) pressures, against domestic protests in the Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions by conducting a crackdown and media blackout, among other measures.

Unlike religious and pro-democracy movements, environmental movements and activism appear to have attained a special place in the spectrum of social movements in China. In the early 1990s, as the Chinese central government wondered how it should implement newly adopted Agenda 21—the national action plan from the Rio Declaration at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992—it encouraged citizens to be part of environmental protection in the form of NGOs. Since then, environmental movements and activism have been, in general, widely accepted in the Chinese authoritarian context. They have often arisen as a means to expose environmental wrongdoings, which violate the environmental policies of the central government, or as a manifestation of collective NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) among China’s growing middle class in urban settings (e.g., the Dalian protests in 2011). Environmental movements have provided Chinese citizens with a relatively safe venue where they can engage in activism and exercise their rights.

The national imperative of environmental protection, however, does not necessarily protect movement activists from being persecuted at the local level. Environmental activists have often appealed to the authority of the central government to intervene in local affairs. However, environmental activism becomes rather difficult when it targets State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) or state-sponsored infrastructure projects. Good examples of the latter case include anti-dam activism, such as the Three Gorges hydropower dam in the late 1980s and the Nu River Dam in the 2000s.

China is the largest hydropower and coal user in the world. As the demand for electricity from China’s urban center rose, and international pressure to switch to renewable energy mounted, China developed an ambitious plan to triple its hydropower capacity by 2020 through building a series of dams. The construction of large-scale dams in China typically entails a massive displacement of people. The Three Gorges hydropower dam, whose construction was completed in 2006, displaced 1.3 to 1.4 million people.

The massive potential environmental and social costs of dam building have generated anti-dam activism involving international forces and transnational movements.
In the late 1980s, the plan to construct the Three Gorges hydropower dam, the world’s largest dam with an installed capacity of 22.5GW, faced transnational anti-dam campaigns led by an international coalition of environmental, developmental, and human rights groups, including International Rivers, Probe International, and Amnesty International. Rather than directly protesting against the Chinese government, these international forces successfully kept pressuring foreign financiers of the dam outside China. As a result, the World Bank declined to finance the dam, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation withdrew its support, and the U.S. Export-Import Bank declared that it would not give loans to U.S. corporations that bid on Three Gorges contracts. While the Boomerang effects successfully delayed implementation of the hydropower plan, the Chinese government continued the project with a loan from the Asian Development Bank, and Dai Qing, a Chinese journalist, was jailed in China for campaigning against the dam through the publication of Yangtze! Yangtze! (1989).

In the first decade of the 21st century, anti-dam activism against the construction plan for the Nu River (Nujiang) hydropower dam in Yunnan highlights the roles of Chinese NGOs in transnational diffusion contexts. The dam project consists of the construction of thirteen dams on the middle and lower reaches of a pristine river, with a total generating capacity of 21.3GW. It is estimated that 60,000 people will be displaced.

What makes Nu River anti-dam activism different from Three Gorges activism is the transnational repertoire of collective action exhibited by local activists. In my research (2011), I described Chinese Nu River anti-dam activist groups as “translocal, by which I mean local organizations whose members possess the capacity to capitalize on the commonalities of their claims and agendas with global actors and with kindred groups in other localities, domestic or foreign.” These activist groups developed horizontal alliances with the Chinese environmental ministry, international NGOs, and dam-affected people at home and abroad. They used the media, the internet, and international venues to publicize the controversy and to collect petition signatures internationally against the construction of the dam. They attended international conferences held not only in China, but also abroad. They actively advocated for their anti-dam position and linked up with kindred groups. Such international conferences included the International Meeting of Dam-Affected People and Their Allies, the UNEP 5th Global Civil Society Forum, and the U.N. Symposium on Hydropower & Sustainable Development. They also linked up with local transnationals inside China (e.g., a transnational corporation, a foreigner- owned café, international NGOs).

These activist groups not only developed alliances with transnationals but also helped the dam-affected local villagers to organize themselves. Dam-affected villagers networked with those in other localities and traded stories. They learned of Chinese policies and international policies on dams and their own rights, which helped them to adopt a new identity as dam-affected people. Eight dam-affected villagers, along with Nu river activists and representatives from international NGOs (International Rivers and Oxfam America), collaborated to participate in the above-mentioned UN symposium in Beijing, despite the organizer’s initial intent to exclude the Chinese activists and villagers. The villagers even submitted two symposium papers, which appropriated different hegemonic discourses—from that of the Chinese Communist Party to that of the World Commission on Dams—in order to legitimate their claims as dam-affected people.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Movements in East and Southeast Asia

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