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Environmental Degradation in China under Mao and Today: A Comparative Reflection

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This essay reflects on the arguments made in two books on China’s environmental degradation, the first on the Mao period (Mao’s War against Nature), the second on contemporary China (China’s Environmental Challenges). It identifies continuities and discontinuities in the underlying forces driving China’s extreme environmental problems. Under Mao, the deep drivers of environmental harm included political repression, utopian urgency, dogmatic formalism and forcible relocations. Nowadays, drivers include globalisation, population increase, urbanisation, the rise of the middle class, challenges of governance and weak civil society, and the displacement of environmental harm across time and space. To what extent has China’s willingness to become the world’s manufacturing hub changed the basic dynamics of environmental harm in the country? Do themes such as lack of public participation and access to information, as well as the State’s need to secure resources in its border territories (and, now, overseas) point to continuities, even as the level of degradation has risen to levels unimaginable as China stood on the brink of reform in 1978? This essay argues that there are both continuities and discontinuities. It concludes with a discussion of the drivers of environmental protection, and an acknowledgment that the Chinese government is going to great lengths to deal with China’s environmental crisis. Although some drivers of environmental harm are intractable, others may yet be redirected and permit grounds for hope.
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Keywords: China; Mao; environment; governance; pollution; sustainability

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2016

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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