State Legitimation and Environmental Crisis in China

Monday, 16 July 2018
Distributed Paper
State legitimation is contested in the Party-States. The authoritarian China also struggles for state legitimation especially in face of environmental and public health crises. Among many contentious environmental issues, China’s air pollution problems have repetitively made Chinese state a direct target both nationally and internationally. The controversies over China’s air quality in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the smog crises in 2010 are the most debated media events up to date. The paper explores how state legitimacy claims concerning crisis response, environmental treatment, and government accountability in the Chinese Party press have been made, challenged and tuned during these environmental and legitimacy crises, and what kinds of discursive tactics are employed in order to seek and preserve state legitimacy during the controversies. I find that the Party press initially tried to downplay the significance of the environmental crisis caused by air pollution, but it gradually modified its approach by developing two narratives about Chinese modernity and the environment. The first narrative emphasized the challenging modernization context that China is going through. It celebrated the environmental changes and innovations that had been initiated, while also recognizing the structural challenges that would take decades to overcome. The second narrative emphasized the need for a partnership with an emergent Chinese civil society, as an important way to respond effectively to environmental challenges. In developing its new environmental discourse, the Chinese Party press disputes the dominant accounts in the mainstream U.S. newspapers, which consistently interpreted China’s actions as evidence of corruption, dishonesty, and a general hostility toward democracy and civil society. Instead, it aligned with civil society actors, drawing on similar public narratives that were circulating in Chinese ENGO press releases, to amplify its plausibility and legitimacy.