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Making the Global in Southwest China
By Michael J. Hathaway
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
IN THE SPACE OF FORTY YEARS the People's Republic of China (PRC) went from being a harsh critic of Western environmentalism to what some see as an international vanguard, an "environmental state" (Lang 2002). In 1972 Chinese delegates at the world's first international conference on the environment, in Stockholm, refused to sign global legislation, arguing that pollution was a product of capitalism, not socialism (Tang 1972). By 2002, however, many outsiders praised the Chinese government's powerful and sweeping environmental laws in rural areas. China enforced the world's largest logging ban, converted massive areas of agricultural and grazing lands to forest, and confiscated hundreds of thousands of guns as part of increasingly strict laws against hunting. The state is not the only actor; popular protests, now amounting to over 100,000 events a year, are increasingly expressed in environmental terms, and citizens rally to decry air and water pollution, as well as their relocation from massive dam projects (Economy 2004; Mertha 2008). Citizen complaints to the government about environmental issues rose tenfold between 1999 and 2009 (Moore 2009). A number of outsiders now describe China (using metaphors common a century ago) as "awakened" to the environment and regard this as an inevitable result of globalization.
Does China's recent attention to the environment demonstrate that, as the world is increasingly connected through globalization, all places are becoming more alike? Globalization is often thought to describe a "world becoming more uniform and standardized, through a technological, commercial, and cultural synchronization emanating from the West" (Pieterse 1995: 45). Many hold the related belief, expressed by the best-selling author Thomas Friedman (2006), that "the world is flat," as people everywhere have access to ideas, connections, and opportunities created by global systems such as the Internet. Most accounts of globalization take a bird's-eye perspective, which focuses on overall political trends or flows of global capital (Steger 2004). By looking closely at a social field like environmentalism and how it is playing out on the ground in one of China's most active regions—the southwest's Yunnan Province—this book offers a different interpretation.
This study of China's environmental politics provides a way to think differently about globalization, and in particular globalized formations. I use the term globalized formations where others might use the more common yet narrower term social movements. The most common image of a social movement is a street-based rally, where people fight to transform state policy, such as creating new civil rights laws. I use globalized formations to signal my interest in a broader constellation of social acts and spaces than what is often understood as a movement, which signals a more temporally and socially discrete set of events toward specific goals (Givan et al. 2010). My subject is to explore how new sensibilities are taken up, fought against, and transformed among a wider public. Examples of globalized formations include movements around gay, indigenous, and women's rights. My analysis of globalized formations emphasizes the critical role played by ordinary people in what I refer to as "making the global."
My understanding of these processes has been shaped by my extensive and ongoing engagements with many people in Yunnan Province, where in 1995 I first worked, lived, and conducted research. I use oral histories, interviews, and archival research to take us back to the beginnings of international conservation efforts starting in 1986, when representatives of the World Wildlife Fund first came to inspect Yunnan's tropical rain forests and search for China's last herds of wild elephants. I explore the subsequent two and a half decades as Yunnan went from being a relatively unknown site for nature conservation to becoming a prominent and influential place for global environmentalism. By 2011 Yunnan was well known for its wide range of habitats, from lowland rain forests to rugged Himalayan peaks. It is highly mountainous and contains the headwaters of some of Asia's great rivers: the Yangtze (Chang Jiang), Mekong (Lancang), and Salween (Nu). It joined the list of the world's "biodiversity hotspots" and is now claimed as "arguably the most botanically rich temperate region in the world" (He and Li 2011: 484). Dozens of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank are deeply involved in trying to shape the management of these landscapes. Many would argue that Yunnan's inclusion within international conservation networks seems to provide evidence that globalization has flowed to even the most remote places.
Indeed when I arrived in Yunnan in 1995, I too understood environmentalism as a global flow that originated in the West and was now spreading throughout China, propagated by groups like WWF. When I started to teach at a forestry college, I found that my first-year students were often puzzled over what environmentalism meant. As I learned more about China's history, I began to understand why this might be the case. I grew up in the United States during what some called an environmental revolution, as exemplified by the world's first Earth Day in New York City in 1970. I was influenced by the legacies of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Dave Foreman of Earth First!, a radical pro-wilderness environmental group. By high school I was a passionate environmentalist and worked on several campaigns to raise money to save tropical rain forests. Yet in 1970 China was in the midst of its own revolution, the Cultural Revolution, and some cities became combat zones where young Red Guards fought each other with grenades and tanks. Some of my students in Kunming were born in 1976, the year Mao Zedong died and the Cultural Revolution ended, and grew up after China's massive market reforms started in 1978. They had heard of environmentalism but were not quite sure what it really meant—unlike their teachers, who, I found out, had been engaging with it for years.
These teachers, Chinese scientists who were also my colleagues, referred to the rise of environmentalism as a wind (feng), specifically as "environmental winds" (huanjing feng), and it became clear that they were not simply accommodating global environmentalism as advocated by WWF. Instead they were actively reshaping these winds conceptually and in relation to China's unique history.
The concept of the environmental wind was different from how I had previously understood the ways globalization works, particularly with respect to the metaphor of flows. When people speak of globalization as a flow, it suggests a force that emerges and spreads without human agency. In contrast, the Chinese view of winds as social formations, made and maintained by people, offered me a different perspective on how globalization happens. Through many discussions I had in Yunnan, it became increasingly clear that winds do not simply impact people; they are made, shaped, and transformed by people. The more I thought about the Chinese perspective on winds, the more I believed that it offered a different, more radical view of what we understand as globalization—one that moves us away from seeing it as a force that emerges by itself or is created solely by the efforts of a few powerful individuals and corporations, a "conspiracy of the rich." Rather, many people, from rural small-scale farmers to government officials, shape and make the global, but not necessarily with the same intent, capacity, or outcomes.
I also found the notion of winds an intriguing concept for thinking about power and the ways that groups can be forged and inspired by new political possibilities. Many analysts of China, from academics to journalists, regard politics and power as a top-down imposition, which ignores the ways diverse groups of people become caught up in new social formations. The metaphor of winds suggests that we cannot know what happens by only studying Beijing's political proclamations; instead it brings us into the lives of Chinese experts, rural activists, expatriate conservationists, local leaders, and all those who have a stake in what happens next. When winds are powerful, there are those who live in the full force of this power, those who live in the eddies, and everyone in between. But all are shaped by and all are themselves shaping the winds, regardless of their intentions.
Before I arrived in China, my readings in the social sciences prompted me to anticipate that rural peoples in the Global South, and particularly those described as indigenous peoples, were fundamentally resistant to external forces such as state mandates and global impositions. The notion of winds also challenged my expectations that rural people aim to live autonomous lives, that they strive to be free of interference from both state and global forces. The idea of winds refuses such schemes of fixed responses and clean divisions between local and global, and encourages us to look at how a range of people, including both urban experts and rural villagers, engage with forces in diverse and creative ways.
I also was interested in the dialogic and transformative aspect of winds. Like physical winds moving through a landscape, the movement of social winds is iterative; the social landscape is constantly shaped by and shaping the movement and power of the winds. When millions of people actively embraced China's Cultural Revolution—attending rallies, reading Mao's Little Red Book, traveling across the nation, and joining the Red Guards—this buoyed its strength. When others began to refuse some pervasive elements of the time, such as Red Guard groups who organized to oppose the rampant physical violence, these actions affected the force and qualities of the winds.
This metaphor of wind is not uncommon in China. Many elderly people described their lives as a dizzying series of winds: "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom," the "Great Leap Forward," the "Cultural Revolution," and the "Opening of China." They described these changes as shifting winds rather than as concrete and predictable stages: things were quick to change, powerful, and then with little explanation gone but with ramifying and lingering effects. I was taught other words that describe situations similar to but different from a feng. The related term re (literally "hot" but figuratively a "fever") describes a situation closer to the English equivalent of "fad" or "fashion," which can be a large-scale social phenomenon but is often less all-encompassing and feels fleeting. The term yundong (mass campaign) describes government-led campaigns with discrete beginnings and endings that may not sweep people up. Feng instead refers to times of more diffuse but still notable changes that are deeply felt engagements. I build on this latter sensibility, as winds are not just terms for political events but structures of feeling that change what it means to live in the moment and create lingering effects.
After weathering these winds for years, many people said they had cultivated a heightened ability to detect shifting winds on the horizon. Their stories were full of accounts of trying to position themselves and their families to avoid the political purges and dangers that a wind like the Cultural Revolution could bring. A wind could not only bring about threats; it could also provide potential advantages, depending on how one acted. Many people seemed alert to new winds, knowing that they were fleeting rather than permanent. A wind often started with little notice, and some rapidly became powerful. Just as quickly, a wind could change course or dissipate.
Let me provide another example of powerful winds that shaped Chinese history, winds that quite strongly shaped natural landscapes as well as social ones. The Great Leap Forward (1957–61) swept up millions of Chinese in enthusiastic all-out efforts to create backyard steel furnaces in order to quickly overtake England in steel production. Throughout the countryside, peasants scoured the land for iron ore and cut down millions of trees to fuel these furnaces, in some places leaving a wasteland of stumps. At the same time, they built a massive infrastructure of over forty thousand reservoirs and canals, significantly expanding the country's potential for agricultural irrigation. Large-scale agricultural communes were quickly amalgamated, and leaders competed to produce previously unheard of levels of grain. In the midst of this rush to build socialism, things went seriously awry: grain yields were vastly exaggerated, large quantities of grain were siphoned off to feed city residents, and peasants neglected their fields, resulting in the world's largest human-caused famine. Approximately 30 million people died, and although estimates vary substantially, the vast majority of those who starved were rural farmers who lacked sufficient access to their own crops (D. L. Yang 1998; Thaxton 2008). The legacies associated with these winds are still felt as China continues to be powerfully shaped by the Great Leap's enduring ecological, cultural, and social effects, many of which are strongly debated today.
In China the idiom of winds has been used mainly to describe changes at local and national levels (like the Great Leap). I extend this concept to help us examine social change at broader scales—in this case, how the globalized formation of environmentalism is made and remade as it travels around the world. The ways that globalized formations work out in any place are strongly mediated by historical legacies and social landscapes. In Africa, for example, current forms of environmentalism engage with a legacy of nature conservation as a key European colonial intervention, and conservation remains more racialized and militarized in Africa than in any other region in the world. In China's case, specific Cold War tensions with the United States inflect how its government works with American organizations. This points to how "global" interactions can be more insightfully understood as particular transnational articulations. As well, globalized engagements are shaped both by how the Chinese state actually operates and how many foreigners view the Chinese state. Winds provide a way to think about how such formations come into being and how they are reciprocally remade through a study of particular encounters and interactions.
While environmentalism was not nearly as powerful as the Great Leap, starting in the 1980s this wind blew through Yunnan during a time of considerable social change. In the beginning, many people, from high-level officials to college students to remote rural villagers, began to mull over the term huanjing (environment/environmental), which was gaining in prominence and power. It formed an umbrella concept, covering both older interests in soil erosion and water conservation and newer concerns about urban pollution and biodiversity conservation. By the 1990s millions of hectares were designated as nature reserves and fragile upland watersheds, and billions of yuan were spent to guard such reserves against local farmers, now regarded as threatening the land with their hoes, guns, and cows.
But as many understood, winds may change direction, and by the 1990s, a number of people, including some Chinese scientists and expatriate conservationists, began to challenge strict forms of nature conservation. They suggested that villagers should not be viewed as environmental adversaries but should be enlisted as partners, or at least stakeholders. Furthermore they argued that some of these communities were not made up of peasants but of indigenous people who possessed "indigenous knowledge" and "sacred forests" and were entitled to special rights under international law. Although this contradicted Beijing's insistence that all Chinese were equally indigenous and that no one in China deserved special rights, this community orientation nonetheless opened new spaces for differentiating between rural communities on the basis of indigeneity. It also unexpectedly provided scientists with a way of challenging mainstream development and conservation initiatives. These dynamics did not unfold simply as an extension of winds blowing from the West; they emerged out of unique histories and relationships among social groups, between people and nature, and between Chinese citizens and the state. This book explores how these winds caught people up and how people, places, and the winds themselves were changed unexpectedly in the process. It brings us into the lives of those individuals who not only encountered environmentalism but brought it into being in China. By exploring how these winds gained force and shaped Yunnan's social landscapes, this book addresses larger questions about how people in China, and elsewhere, are making the global.
Excerpted from Environmental Winds by Michael J. Hathaway. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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