The Politics of Public Participation and the Emergence of Environmental Proto-Movements in China

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2003-12-09

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Abstract

This dissertation provides new empirical evidence which shows that environmental activism has been increasing in China since the early 1990s. It explains why participation has increased and why it varies across provinces. It examines the potential emergence of environmental movements and shows the utility of applying social movement theories to studying participation more broadly. Finally, It shows how participation makes a difference in policy outcomes.

Both qualitative and quantitative methods, including a statistical analysis of ten years of environmental data, an examination of 125 disputes and over 100 interviews in China, are used to examine the dominant modes of citizen participation; these include direct citizen protests, the dispute resolution and complaint systems, state-mobilized campaigns, and environmental social organizations.

New political opportunities for citizen activism have opened up because authorities have encouraged participation. Authorities need participation to achieve policy goals, however this need is in constant tension with the desire to control it. While political opportunities have allowed for greater participation, they remain limiting factors to the emergence of traditional movements. Grievances, mobilizational structures, and framing processes, also are factors in determining patterns of participation.

The Chinese regime has become more responsive to citizen environmental grievances and since the 1980s, there has been a "sophistication" of state-society relations. This, however, does not represent a significant change in the principals guiding the Chinese state.

This research illustrates how political opportunity structures in reforming, one-party, corporatist countries like China differ from such structures in freer states. It shows how the Chinese State's approaches have largely worked in containing widespread social unrest. Authorities have encouraged participation in some channels but limited it in others. They utilize the familiar tools of repression and suppression as well as new tools, including regulations, institutions, and processes, through which they shape, channel, and control participation.

On the other hand, citizens have taken advantage of opportunities. In some areas, they have established primarily autonomous environmental groups, practice "civil politics," and have created a vibrant conservation proto-movement. Proto-movements exhibit many of the attributes of traditional social movements, and can be precursors to them, but remain constrained by limited political opportunities.

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