Yesterday, I participated in a day-long conference to promote environmentalism. I think I was invited for some combination of two reasons: I’m a recognized foreign friend of the city and anthropologists tell better stories than scientists do. Although technically, I’m a scientist, too! (Social science for the win–hee!) Anyway, the other guests have been diligently working alongside and via the government apparatus to create green spaces throughout the city. Event host, Nan Zhaoxu 南兆旭, for example, wrote The Shenzhen Natural History Encyclopedia 深圳自然博物百科 and event organizer, Meng Xiangwei 孟祥伟 has been director of the OCT Wetlands Field School since its establishment seven years ago. Their efforts have been instrumental in elevating district-level events to municipal, provincial and even national levels, not only contributing to Shenzhen’s status as China’s greenest first-tier city, but also to getting environmental sustainability on the city’s urban planning laundry list.
So, now you’re wondering: what was my takeaway from the event? Just how sustainable is Shenzhen’s environment? And what can environmentally conscious people do via an apparatus that is structured to sustain a political environment, rather than an economic let alone non-human environment? Unfortunately my thoughts are not so grand. Instead, I ended up thinking about the cultural forms of environmentalism:
Like many elsewhere, Shenzhen environmentalists have used corporate social responsibility to insert green concerns into citywide conversations. Moreover, also as elsewhere, the structure of the event shows up embedded concerns that inevitably pre-empt taking effective action. The first problem to overcome is that environmentalism in Shenzhen is (especially at the OCT) framed through the discourse of tourism. The idea that when nature is beautiful people will come and spend. In fact, developing the tourist industry has long been part of Shenhen’s master plan. In addition, the OCT’s role in developing some of the city’s most expensive real estate exacerbates this tendency because a “good environment” is now widely considered a commodity, like any other. It is produced, packaged and sold to those who can afford it. And this assumption subtends many arguments to demolish urban villages which are considered eyesores (at best) and unhealthy (at worst). In practice, this means that “good” environments have become one of the perks of wealth, while “bad” environments have been normalized for the working class.
If this problem sounds familiar that’s because some of the most beautiful places in north America were “preserved” through a similar logic. The world is understood through the prism of “natural resources” which can be harvested and sold, even as landscapes and environmental experiences have become tourist commodities. Moreover, as in North America, in Shenzhen it is difficult to address this instrumental view of “nature” because it is embedded in larger political formations. Yesterday’s program, for example, began with a corporate film that outlined the OCT’s understanding of corporate social responsibility. In this formulation, the government sets social goals and its agents realize these goals through economic programs, positioning central state-owned enterprises 央企 to mediate between the government and the people. Not surprisingly, this structure not only legitimates state-owned monopolies, but also pre-empts critical intervention into development.
So what do Shenzhen environmentalists (and other activists) hope to achieve through these events? More often than not there are two assumed goals. First, is to establish some kind of watchdog organization–a third-party institution that can bring other (non-political and non-economic) concerns to the conversation. Second, is to create a broad consensus about what the government should be doing, which in turn might lead to new policies because even though Covid authoritarianism has muted vocal resistance to current zero-Covid policy, nevertheless it has not obscured the extent to which the government relies on cooperation 配合 to achieve its goals; as we have seen in Shanghai, without cooperation, the government can not achieve its goals. Indeed, 配合 is a particular kind of cooperation–actively helping a superior achieve state goals which may (and are assumed to) cause inconvenience and even problems for inferiors. This means that leaders love to praise those who 配合 and criticize those who don’t. It also means that when there is widespread passive resistance to a policy or program it is difficult to achieve any kind of social goal. During February and March, for example, Shenzhen “enthusiastically cooperated 积极配合” with zero-Covid. In contrast, Shanghai has not, which in turn has shown up the amount of force that is required to bring a population into compliance.
In terms of achieving environmental goals beyond those that can be achieved through corporate mediation, Shenzhen environmentalists might be understood as trying to redeploy the cultural logic of 配合. On the one hand, the explicit goal is to insert more viable environmental policies into corporate projects, making these institutions not only responsible to the central government but also responsible for the environments that they have been entrusted with. On the other, these activists also hope that by changing mass behavior of residents they can influence the government to become more eco-friendly. The assumption is that the government too will take the path of least resistance to maintain power. Hence, the CCP has maintained its hegemony, even as its policies shift from session to session, with administrations seeming to represent radically different political philosophies, many of which (the shift to market policies in the 1980s and anti-corruption in the 2010s) are explicitly populist
Thought du jour: On the face of it, the potential of 配合 as a strategy to promote environmentalism within an authoritarian state seems low. That said, however, it’s unclear whether or not more direct environmental action in north America and western Europe have effectively redirected unsustainable investment and development. So I show up at these events and 配合 organizers’ goals, fighting the battle where and as I find it.