China's Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change

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Today opponents of large-scale dam projects in China, rather than being greeted with indifference or repression, are part of the hydropower policymaking process itself. What accounts for this dramatic change in this critical policy area surrounding China's insatiable quest for energy? In China's Water Warriors, Andrew C. Mertha argues that as China has become increasingly market driven, decentralized, and politically heterogeneous, the control and management of water has transformed from an unquestioned economic imperative to a lightning rod of bureaucratic infighting, societal opposition, and open protest.

Although bargaining has always been present in Chinese politics, more recently the media, nongovernmental organizations, and other activists—actors hitherto denied a seat at the table—have emerged as serious players in the policy-making process. Drawing from extensive field research in some of the most remote parts of Southwest China, China's Water Warriors contains rich narratives of the widespread opposition to dams in Pubugou and Dujiangyan in Sichuan province and the Nu River Project in Yunnan province.

Mertha concludes that the impact and occasional success of such grassroots movements and policy activism signal a marked change in China's domestic politics. He questions democratization as the only, or even the most illuminating, indicator of political liberalization in China, instead offering an informed and hopeful picture of a growing pluralization of the Chinese policy process as exemplified by hydropower politics.

For the 2010 paperback edition, Mertha tests his conclusions against events in China since 2008, including the Olympics, the devastating 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, and the Uighar and Tibetan protests of 2008 and 2009.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In this concise and well-organized book, Andrew Mertha makes several significant contributions. . . . He assesses public response to potentially disruptive hydropower projects to sort out the various distinctive Chinese elements of concern and protest. Specific contexts addressed include government agency roles at national, provincial, and local levels; NGO inputs; and scientific and engineering assessments. These point up the complexity and changing nature of water politics in China during the present transition from still-prevalent earlier models of bureaucratic control, management, use, and quality assurance of fresh water to currently popular market-based experiments in the energy, agriculture, supply, and pollution control sectors. . . . This book is a refreshing and informative investigative foray into the critically important water dimension of the still mostly opaque mechanisms of political and social adjustments underway in the course of China's technological, economic, and geographic modernization."—Baruch Boxer, H-Water, H-Net Reviews, October 2009

"China's Water Warriors not only enriches our understanding of emergent environmental politics in the People's Republic of China but also directly takes on the evolution of state-society relations and policymaking within the context of the Chinese state. Mertha examines how nonstate actors can have an impact on policy. Mertha points out that the indeterminate outcome of pluralistic politics may impede and complicate the search for clean alternatives to coal for China's soaring energy needs. Local victory for citizens may not translate into victory for the environment or the planet."—Asian Studies

"Andrew C. Mertha, who has extensive research, teaching, and business experience in China, examines three major hydropower projects to shed light on how China's 'fragmented authoritarianism' is becoming ever more pluralistic in nature. China's Water Warriors is a careful and theoretically sophisticated contribution to the literature on the evolution of China's political system."—Choice

"Mertha's tales of water warriors, the proponents and critics of the river dam projects in northwestern China, provide a vantage point into China's social and political changes in the last two decades. Both the stories and the theoretical messages are refreshing to readers interested in state-society relations, policymaking processes, and citizen mobilization in contemporary China. Mertha's work has led us to a higher platform for China watching."—Mobilization

"China's Water Warriors provides an insightful and useful tour of contemporary dams in China. Mertha shows how dam decision making has become increasingly messy and diffuse. He focuses on the greater ability of NGOs and media activists to impact projects and on the efforts of local communities to oppose dams. Mertha's unprecedented access to local officials involved in the defeat of the Dujiangyan Dam reveals that in China's fragmented political structure, local bureaucrats can fight the interests of China's massive and well-connected dam industry."—World Rivers Review

"Addressing the role of forces outside the government in China's policymaking, Andrew C. Mertha's China's Water Warriors makes a significant and insightful contribution. Mertha takes advantage of three campaigns to resist the construction of dams that occur at roughly the same time (the mid-2000s), and in the same region (southwestern China's Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces) yet result in three different outcomes. Mertha draws on these different outcomes to explore whether, and how, the activities of the opposition to the government-planned dams can explain the different outcomes observed."—Bryan Lohmar, Political Science Quarterly, Spring 2009

"China's Water Warriors offers an informed and illuminating view of the rapidly changing Chinese policy process. Andrew C. Mertha's fascinating study of the contemporary politics of hydropower reveals how new actors—journalists, NGO activists, scholars, and even the public at large—influence the Chinese policy process to a degree almost unimaginable a decade or two ago."—Elizabeth J. Perry, Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government, Harvard University

"Andrew C. Mertha proves that sometimes it's best to approach a topic from the side. To provide the freshest interpretation of Chinese bureaucratic politics in years, he investigates controversies surrounding dam-building. To cast light on state-society relations and the pluralization of Chinese society, he starts with the state. Nearly every page contains something new about issues as different as democratization, protest, and the policy process. Readers will be grappling with Mertha's findings on policy entrepreneurship and issue framing for as long as Chinese leaders are making policies."—Kevin J. O'Brien, Alann P. Bedford Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, coauthor of Rightful Resistance in Rural China

"China's Water Warriors should be read by anyone interested in hydropower politics and the future of government in China. Andrew Mertha's focus on how political pluralism works within a single-party, authoritarian state is highly original."—Bent Flyvbjerg, principal author of Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition

"While China has roared ahead with water control and hydropower megaprojects, Western scholarship has been slow to update its stubborn paradigms. This book takes a big step in bringing theory more in line with the complex realities of political pluralism and protest found in China today."—Tim Oakes, University of Colorado

"China's Water Warriors will force a major alteration in the way we understand China today. Andrew C. Mertha uses concepts and ideas from the field of American politics to good effect and ties his cases to critical themes in the field of domestic Chinese politics. He demonstrates the space that the liberalizing and internationalizing polity has been able to clear for the intrusion of new actors; his analyses of the changed role and influence of such players as the media and NGOs are pathbreaking and highly revealing. Mertha's deep knowledge of historical legacies brings nuance and reliability to his fascinating stories, and the vividly told narrative benefits greatly from Mertha's expert skill in asking-and teasing out answers to-subtle and sensitive questions of his informants."—Dorothy J. Solinger, University of California, Irvine

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801476686
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Table of Contents


1 China's Hydraulic Society?
2 Actors, Interests, and Issues at Stake
3 From Policy Confl ict to Political Showdown: The Failure at Pubugou
4 From Economic Development to Cultural Heritage: Expanding the Sphere at Dujiangyan
5 The Nu River Project and the Middle Ground of Political Pluralization
6 A Kinder, Gentler "Fragmented Authoritarianism"?


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