*H-NET BOOK REVIEW
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Elizabeth C. Economy. _The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge
to China's Future_. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004.
xiii + 337 pp. Index. $17.95 ISBN 0-8014-8978-4.
A Presentist Account of China's Environmental Crisis
Review by Thomas S. Mullaney, Department of History, Stanford University
Elizabeth Economy's new work on the Chinese environment is insightful,
provided that readers skip the first half, concentrate on the second,
and recognize all the while that it is based almost entirely on
English-language secondary sources. The opening chapters alternate
between, at best, an apocalyptic enumeration of China's precipitous
descent into an ecological abyss, and at worst, a recapitulation of many
of the most threadbare tropes about Chinese culture and politics. The
second half, in contrast, provides a far more grounded and insightful
picture of environmentalism in contemporary China, including an overview
of the key challenges faced by the Communist state, the infrastructural
organization of China's environmental agencies, and the role of local
populations in shaping the future of the country.
While I do not wish to spend much time on the first half of the book, it
seems necessary to provide a few examples of why, in my opinion, readers
are best served by skipping certain sections of Economy's work entirely.
In the chapter titled "A Legacy of Exploitation," Economy mines the
fakebook of classical Sinology, humming along to all the standard tunes
of Chinese exceptionalism. In explaining how China arrived at its
current level of environmental degradation, all the greatest hits are
there: China's failure to formulate a transparent system of law and
political accountability; its failure to develop a tradition of
scientific rationality, owing to (as usual) the Confucian stranglehold
of independent inquiry and its obsession with doctrinal orthodoxy; and
the list goes on. In each of these cases, scholarship of the last three
decades has called into serious question these very assumptions, and in
some cases laid waste to them entirely.
Conceptually, the first half of the book is equally thin. Economy takes
the highly modern discursive notions of "environment,"
"environmentalism," and its various permutations, and projects them into
a distant past where they do not belong. In an anachronistic account of
China's philosophical and religious traditions, Economy haphazardly
paraphrases secondary literature in an attempt to ground her otherwise
presentist account of the People's Republic of China in a broader
context. In this analysis, the Confucian discourse on environmentalism
is summarized in three pages, Taoism and Neoconfucianism in one each,
Legalism in three paragraphs, and Buddhism in five sentences. Indeed,
the section does so little justice to what Economy calls the
"philosophical underpinnings" of China's current environmental crisis
that it would have been far better had the author simply left it out.
In sharp contrast to the first half of the book, the second half does
a commendable job of illuminating certain key issues within Chinese
environmentalism, many of which are non-obvious. First, one of the
primary challenges to environmental protection in China has been the
devolution of political and economic authority to the localities,
ironically the very same phenomenon which has been heralded by many
China observers as the engine of the country's economic growth and
political liberalization. Second, Economy does a wonderful job of
moving beyond self-evident challenges facing Chinese environmentalism
to explore some of the less apparent factors. For example, instead of
focusing solely on China's lack of key environmental protection laws,
she also examines important legal loopholes that Chinese business
owners have exploited to circumvent legislation that does exist.
Likewise, in addition to examining the usual suspects of environmental
degradation (development-driven Chinese industrialists and unconcerned officials),
Economy examines casesof environmental damage which were the result, not of individual
indifference, but of infrastructural incapacity. Namely, she examines
cases in which environmental degradation was allowed to proceed due to
the lack of a local-level information networks that, had they existed,
would have allowed citizens to report environmental problems to
relevant government agencies.
Overall, for readers who are most concerned with understanding the
broader historical context and significance of contemporary challenges
to the Chinese environment, their time and energy would be better
spent elsewhere--Mark Elvin's _The Retreat of the Elephants: An
Environmental History of China_ (2004) immediately comes to mind. For
those whose concerns are focused strictly on the present, however, and
for those who are in need of a rapid introduction to the key
institutions, players, and issues within Chinese environmentalism, the
new work by Economy is well worth a quick read.
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