Political Roots of China’s Degradation – Judith Shapiro

China’s Transformations is a collection of essays that cover many of the current debates surrounding China’s rise. This is our summary of the second essay within the book.

Judith Shapiro explores the link between human suffering and environmental degradation while examining the Mao years (50).

Shapiro also seeks to explore the political connections between human rights and the environment (52).

The concern over the deteriorating environment has lead to an increasingly evident need to pay attention to connection between the environment and human rights.  Environmentalists and human rights activists are pursuing the same goals.  This is in contrast to the historical perception that these agendas are often in conflict with one another (53).

The Three Gorges Dam project illustrates this conflict. By its completion in 2006, roughly 2 million people were relocated, the world’s largest forced relocation in history. Many were denied fair compensation during the relocation. Generally, payments were withheld altogether or residents were compensated with poor land. Corrupt officials smothered a petition against the damn project and detained community leaders (51-52).

While the China’s constitution guarantees many rights such as free speech and freedom of association, this is usually denied in practice (53).

For local communities, the distinction between environmentalism and human rights activism is irrelevant (53).

In China, environmentalists must stay within their own sphere so as to not attract the fury of the state. Recycling, picking up trash, and promoting energy conservation are acceptable but linking these to human suffering results in termination of the organization by the government. Human rights activists typically work underground or outside of the country (54).

Shapiro notes that the resolution of environmental degradation and human rights can only be effectively solved with the liberalization of public discourse and abating fears of government retribution (54).

Public awareness of environmental degradation has grown over the years but this is secondary to economic growth for the government (55).

A growing frustration towards corrupt officials who work with the industries that pollute the land has resulted in an increase in protests. Petitioning government officials to expose corruption can be popular but brings its own risk such as intimidation by thugs and detainment by the corrupt official (56-57).

A lack of information impedes movements in support of the environment and human rights issues (58).

Some of the patterns seen today by the environment and human rights are still a reflection of the Mao years. Campaigns like the anti-rightist movement of 1957 and the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1960 persecuted intellectuals and prevented them from providing vital insights and knowledge that China could have used today (59-60).

Mao believed the environment to be an obstacle that must be tamed to the needs of man. Maoist thought claimed tht tat revolutionary fervor could overcome any obstacle, whether that be the environment, humans, or the heavens (61).

Pursuit of these goals led to relocation of several thousands of people to inhospitable areas in order to make room for development. Additionally, deforestation of mountainous regions sometimes led to loss of topsoil, siltation of rivers, and even changes in rainfall patterns (61).

Scientists and experts were either forced to comply with Mao’s orders or placed into reeducation camps. This repression of intellectual freedom led to an insurmountable amount of human suffering that was both environmentally and ecologically destructive (61).

Since Mao’s death in 1976, the government has granted greater economic freedom and rights. However, this has led to an even more acute problem of environmental protection due to the pursuit of profit. There is speculation whether China’s opening to the west will result in even greater degradation, especially given increasing demand for energy and resources (62-63).

Ultimately there must be active and open participation by Chinese citizens to resolve the issues that plague China (62-65).

Our Response

Shapiro’s article does well explaining the dichotomous yet symbiotic relationship between human and environmental rights. While seemingly paradoxical at first, this is a relationship that can only be possible in China due to the government’s strict separation of human and environmental rights. The need for a more open and liberal forum in China for the public is also a very important theme  if China ever wants these issues to be effectively handled.  Both Judith Shapiro’s examinations of the state of environmentalism in China and her analysis of the Mao Zedong era provides an expansive context of the issues that face China today.

This article works well in that Shapiro covers a variety of different topics. She covers everything from environmental NGO rules, regulation and behavior, the political dangers of mixing human and environmental issues in China, and provides important historical context for the discussion. Shapiro’s paper (like many of the article and essay’s in China’s Transformations) should be viewed as an introduction or a primer to these issues; not necessarily an in depth review. Before the Deluge:  The Vanishing World of the Yangtze Three Gorges is an excellent introduction to the environmental costs which Shapirp talks about in her article.

For those unfamiliar with Chinese history, her inclusion of Mao era policies and environmental impacts may seem to come out of left field but can be seen as appropriate. Not only does it give background to the discussion at hand but also acknowledges the fact that Mao still retains a level of influence in China today. As mentioned earlier however, the primary use of this book is meant as an introduction to these topics and the Mao era has left such an indelible mark on Chinese identity and culture today that to ignore it would be an enormous grievance.

If you’d like an excellent primer on the social conditions in China, we highly recommend buying China’s Transformations: The Story Behind the Headlines on Amazon.

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