Academic journal article China Perspectives

China's Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change

Academic journal article China Perspectives

China's Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change

Article excerpt

Andrew C. Mertha, China's Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change, Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press, 2008.192 pp.


Andrew C. Mertha's book takes us into the world of large-scale dam projects in southwestern Chinese rivers. His research digs into resistance movements against some of these projects in the search for answers to a puzzling phenomenon: apparently powerless contenders defeat large-scale industrial developments that enjoy the outright support of the mighty Chinese party-state - a state that is arguable more in control of all means of coercion than any other non-totalitarian polity in the contemporary world.

This phenomenon recently caught widespread attention in the highly publicised protests against a Xiamen chemical plant project in 2007. Mertha's cases, however, take place a few years before "Xiamen PX." The author provides careful fieldwork accounts and novel ideas to make sense of them through a most-similar comparative design. The three cases in his study, located in the Dadu River (Pubugou) and the Min River (Dujiangyan) in Sichuan, and in the Nu River in Yunnan, show varying levels of successful resistance (the dependent variable) while unfolding at roughly the same time (2003-2006) and place. Hence, broad structural changes alone, which affect all of them equally, cannot possibly account for their varying success. Consequently, Mertha's argument, which he summarizes in Chapter 1, revolves around policy entrepreneurship and issue framing. Both can unfold because of a broad structural feature of China's contemporary polity, which Mertha identifies as "fragmented authoritarianism" - a framework previously coined by Kenneth Lieberthal and Michel Oksenberg. It provides "the 'spaces' necessary for [policy entrepreneurs] to exist without being snuffed out by the coercive apparatus of the state" (p. 18). The book's main argument (pp. 18 ff) thus claims that policy change is possible when policy entrepreneurship is high (his necessary condition), and while the framing tactics these entrepreneurs engage in dominate the public sphere (his sufficient condition).

An unarguably outstanding aspect of Mertha's analysis is that he situates discourse in a very concrete institutional field. This makes language and the role of meaning-making in the Chinese policy process tangible. The author can therefore convincingly argue that the use of symbolic devices can actually result in very concrete policy shifts. Although language has been debated in relation to contention in China, the discursive aspect of concrete cases of conflict has probably not been examined in such detail previously. This volume may thus be regarded as an additional step in establishing the "politics of signification"(1) in the field of China Studies.

Mertha argues that policy entrepreneurs appear in the form of "disgruntled officials," journalists, or NGOs activists.(2) His entrepreneurs come across highly agentive and strategic: "Policy entrepreneurs bide their time until chance opportunities arise, perhaps indicating that they are not simply providing a solution in response to an existing problem but waiting for the appropriate problem to arise ... so that they can plug in their already well-developed solutions" (p. 6). They promote their ideas mainly through articulation - picking "symbols that can be packaged in such a way problem of social injustice contributed to the defeat of the opposition. According to him, injustice simply lacked "power to attract the broad support necessary for policy change" (p. 93), because similar problems were experienced by many Chinese and empathy was therefore difficult to invoke.141 As soon as mass protests broke out, the state converted to repression mode, dispatching large-scale military and police units and declaring the issue a threat to social stability. Once the event was declared political, reporting on it became risky, closing all doors to meaningful adjustment, not to mention successful resistance. …

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