In the decades since the late 1970s, China has become a manufacturing powerhouse for the world. This has helped improve the lives of its population, but major repercussions on its environment have drawn the attention of Western scholars in diverse disciplines since the 1980s. Judith Shapiro’s book is part of this trend. She already published a book on this issue in 2001 (Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, Cambridge University Press). While that work focused on the Maoist period, her latest offers a panorama on the issue from the launch of reform and opening to the present time. The author was studying Chinese language and civilisation (Master of Asian Studies) at the University of California when she was selected to teach English in Hunan Province in 1979. After returning to the United States two and a half years later, her career took a turn towards Global Environmental Politics. She has since been teaching at the School of International Service at American University (Washington, D.C.).
China’s Environmental Challenges takes the form of a manual for students specialising in environmental policy or contemporary China but also for anyone interested in the subject. Its 205 pages (plus preface) are divided into seven chapters. Each chapter ends with a series of questions and several links to websites so the reader can take the discussion further. The book thus has a highly didactic aspect. It is based on a compilation of secondary sources, Internet sites specialising in environmental issues in China and elsewhere, articles, documentary films as well as some personal interviews and communications addressed to the author. The environmental theme is dealt with using a multidisciplinary approach (political science, environmental anthropology, human geography, environmental history, and economics of the environment) centred on five key analytical concepts: globalisation, governance, national identity, civil society, and environmental justice. The introduction describes the environmental problems and challenges facing China. Chapter 2 details the factors affecting the country’s natural environment: over-population, the rise of the middle class, globalisation and industrialisation, urbanisation and the diminution of arable land, as well as climate change. Chapter 3 looks at the institutional and legal framework of China’s governance system. Chapter 4 focuses on national identity and the possibility of creating a sustainable Chinese model of development. Chapter 5 examines the emergence of a civil society and the population’s participation in the country’s political orientation on environmental issues. The penultimate chapter raises the issue of equity and of the displacement of environmental harm towards poorer regions of China and the world. Finally, by way of conclusion, the author offers paths China might pursue as well as a reflection on the role developed countries may play.
Click here for digital sample copy of the introductory chapter of the book.
Review published in the issue of China Perspectives 2014/1: Post-1997 Hong Kong: Emerging social and institutional fractures.