Making sense of 'semi civil society' : a case study of Nu River anti-dam movement in China

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Making sense of 'semi civil society' : a case study of Nu River anti-dam movement in China

 

Author: Zhou, Hang
Title: Making sense of 'semi civil society' : a case study of Nu River anti-dam movement in China
Degree: Ph.D.
Year: 2013
Subject: Environmental protection -- China.
Non-governmental organizations -- China.
Civil society -- China.
Hong Kong Polytechnic University -- Dissertations
Department: Dept. of Applied Social Sciences
Pages: x, 172 p. : ill. ; 30 cm.
Language: English
InnoPac Record: http://library.polyu.edu.hk/record=b2653104
URI: http://theses.lib.polyu.edu.hk/handle/200/7302
Abstract: Over the past thirty years, China economy has been growing rapidly, which was achieved at the expense of the environment. In the past decade, environmental contentions induced by real or perceived pollution have increased dramatically. Environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) are becoming increasingly responsive to pollution and other environmental degradations. They have played an important role in public education and other related areas. This single case study focuses on the controversy over dam-building on the Nu River in Southwest China. At the state level, the Nu hydropower development plan was justified by the name of tackling China's energy and electricity shortage in order to maintain a high economic growth rate. Chinese environmental NGOs have taken up collective actions to halt the construction of the cascade Nu hydropower stations over the past nine years. Chinese ENGOs in the campaign against the hydropower development on the Nu River demonstrate several tendencies of China's civil society. First, considerable autonomy and independence of Chinese ENGOs can be observed in the protection of grass-root interest. Second, Chinese ENGOs have successfully established a large legitimate space of civil society in China. And third, the Chinese authoritarian state has gradually transformed itself and faced dynamic social forces. These new forces represent the inception of a "semi-civil society" in China. Based on the Nu River case, this study shows that civil society in contemporary China diverges in many aspects from the western discourse. Chinese civil society has its unique features, and it is better defined as a semi-civil society. As individual Chinese acquiring political, economic and social rights during the reform era, people start to enjoy limited civil rights. When environmental volunteers take actions in the public sphere, they intend to get across the official boundaries to pursue goals with political concerns. However, they still lack full capacity of self-organization and their very existence is occasionally legally questionable. The mechanism of the anti-Nu dam movement is less likely to be copied elsewhere, because the success is contingent on emergent political opportunities and other conditions.
The author finds that some key characteristics of a civil society have emerged in environmental protection movements and are especially prominent in the Nu anti-dam campaign. For example, a group of individuals were willing to take full responsibility of protecting the environment and were endowed with keen interests on environmental protection, indicating individual Chinese as free and responsible citizens and as independent non-state subject. In the process of protecting the Nu River and protesting the hydropower development plan, Chinese ENGOs became more responsive and demonstrated increasingly enhanced capacity of action, high degree of self-governance and strong ability of mobilization. However, as an organized social force with distinctive value and clear boundary of action, Chinese environmental NGOs did not fully display their strength in several significant polluting events and environmental disputes in recent years. They are also weak in articulating interest of the grass root, maintaining public environmental rights, and influencing the governmental policy. In sum, Chinese ENGOs have played a functional but limited role in constructing, protecting and expanding the public sphere in China. It resembles the Western conception of civil society, but it is not fully-fledged yet. Their presence indicates a semi-civil society and a distinctive public sphere with restricted freedom in deploying direct and civil means to influence state and its policies.

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