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Investigating nature within different discursive and ideological contexts: case studies of Chinese and Indian coal capitals

  • PIN-HSIEN WU (a1)


Given that purely scientific accounts of ‘environmental performance’ and ‘development’ cannot fully explain the environment and its interactions with people, this paper investigates how nature has been historically and sociopolitically defined in different societies. The analyses and observations presented in this paper are based on a critical literature review and on case studies of two ‘coal capitals’, one in Guizhou in China and the other in Jharkhand in India. The study examines the historical representations of environmental campaigns (particularly from the 1950s to the 1990s) in the two countries, and discusses how historical, sociopolitical and ideological factors have affected conceptualizations of nature and how they are reflected nowadays in people's narratives concerning the environment. The paper concludes that the Chinese pattern of development, as well as of knowledge construction, reflects a greater intention of homogenizing the public with the language of development deployed by the centralized power; meanwhile, the Indian pattern allows a greater space for the representation of conflicts, including people's struggles against the state. The comparative analysis enriches our understanding of people's responses to official perceptions of the environment endorsed by modern science and governance.

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1 The is a Web medium focusing on the environmental crisis in China and its neighbouring countries. The international organization is funded by a range of institutional supporters and based in London and Beijing. For the article see Joydeep Gupta, ‘Beijing or New Delhi: who has the worst air pollution?’, chinadialogue, 3 February 2014.

2 Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Center for International Earth Science Information Network, 2014 Environmental Performance Index.

3 Corinne Abrams, ‘Why Delhi doesn't have a Beijing-style response to pollution’, Wall Street Journal, 9 December 2015, available at:, accessed 18 December 2015; Doug Bolton, ‘Beijing continues to suffer from pollution, but Delhi's air quality is one-and-a-half times worse’, The Independent, 11 December 2015, available at:, accessed 18 December 2015; Times News Network, ‘If Delhi was Beijing, it would shut 29 of 30 Days', Times of India, 11 December 2015, available at:, accessed 18 December 2015.

4 Abheet Singh Sethi, ‘Delhi's pollution one-and-half times worse than Beijing’, IndiaSpend, 10 December 2015, available at:, accessed 18 December 2015.

5 Abrams, op. cit. (3); Bolton, op. cit. (3).

6 PM2.5 is fine particulate matter that is less than 2.5 microns in diameter. It is prone to carrying heavy metals and chemicals, and its small particle size allows it to reach a large surface area and penetrate deeper into the lungs.

7 Clarence James Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967; Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

8 Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980, p. xviii.

9 International Energy Agency, Energy Balances of Non-OECD Countries 2012, Paris: OECD Publishing, 2012.

10 Black carbon, also known as soot, is a solid carbon particle formed through the incomplete combustion of biomass and fossil fuels. Scientists believe that it accounts for about one-fifth of observed global warming. See Jeremy Carl, Rising from the Ashes: India's Black Carbon Opportunity, Philadelphia: Center for the Advanced Study of India, 2009; Lesley Sloss, Black Carbon Emissions in India, London: IEA Clean Coal Centre, 2012. Yushi Mao, Hong Sheng and Fuqiang Yang, The True Cost of Coal, Beijing: Greenpeace China, 2008; Pratap, Shiv, Chandra, Avinash and Raghav, Ashok Kumar, ‘Carbon dioxide emissions from coal based power generation in India’, Energy Conversion and Management (2006) 47, pp. 427441; Sloss, op. cit. (10).

11 Cao, Xia, ‘Regulating mine land reclamation in developing countries: the case of China’, Land Use Policy (2007) 24, pp. 472483; Menon, Surabi, Hansen, James, Nazarenko, Larissa and Luo, Yunfeng, ‘Climate effects of black carbon aerosols in China and India’, Science (2002) 297, pp. 22502253; Roger Moody, The Risks We Run: Mining, Communities and Political Risk Insurance, London: International Books, 2005; Sloss, op. cit. (10); Coal, China, and India: A Deadly Combination for Air Pollution?, Washington, DC: The Worldwatch Institute, 2005; Brian Tilt, The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China: Environmental Values and Civil Society, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013; Tim Wright, The Political Economy of the Chinese Coal Industry: Black Gold and Blood-Stained Coal, London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

12 Peter Newell, Globalization and the Environment: Capitalism, Ecology and Power, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

13 Statement by prime minister at COP 21 Plenary Paris, 30 November 2015, available at, accessed 19 December 2015.

14 Government of India and Ministry of Mines and the Indian Bureau of Mines, Indian Minerals Yearbook 2012, available at, accessed 19 July 2015.

15 Government of India, State-Wise Per Capita Income and Gross Domestic Product at Current Prices, 2013, available at, accessed 19 July 2015.

16 China National Coal Association, 2012 National Coal Production Notification, 2013, available at, accessed 19 July 2015.

17 UNDP China and Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies, China National Human Development Report 2013, available at, accessed 19 July 2015.

18 Bäckstrand, Karin, ‘Civic science for sustainability: reframing the role of experts, policy-makers and citizens in environmental governance’, Global Environmental Politics (2003) 3, pp. 2441; Timothy Forsyth, Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science, London: Routledge, 2013.

19 Grove, Richard Hugh, ‘Origins of Western environmentalism’, Scientific American (1992) 267, pp. 4247.

20 Amita Baviskar, In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; Gadgil, Madhav and Guha, Ramachandra, ‘Ecological conflicts and the environmental movement in India’, Development and Change (1994) 25, pp. 101136; Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000; Shashi Ranjan Pandey, Community Action for Social Justice: Grassroots Organisations in India, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1991; Parajuli, Pramod, ‘Ecological ethnicity in the making: developmentalist hegemonies and emergent identities in India’, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power (1996) 3, pp. 1459; Swain, Ashok, ‘Democratic consolidation? Environmental movements in India’, Asian Survey (1997) 37, pp. 818832.

21 Parajuli, op. cit. (20), p. 16.

22 Swain, op. cit. (20), p. 819.

23 Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez-Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South, London: Earthscan Publications Ltd, 1997, p. 5.

24 Mawdsley, Emma, ‘After Chipko: from environment to region in Uttaranchal’, Journal of Peasant Studies (1998) 25, pp. 3654.

25 Parajuli, op. cit. (20), pp. 32–33.

26 Baviskar, op. cit. (20), pp. 205–209.

27 Baviskar, op. cit. (20). Adivasi in Hindi stands for ‘original inhabitants’; it refers to the aboriginal peoples of the Indian subcontinent. Some researchers suggest that the adivasis have developed their lifestyle and social structures over many centuries in accordance with the laws of nature. See Felix Padel and Samarendra Das, Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel, New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2010.

28 Sarah Jewitt, ‘Europe's “Others”? Forestry policy and practices in colonial and post-colonial India’, in Stuart Corbridge, Sarah Jewitt and Sanjay Kumar (eds.), Jharkhand: Environment, Development, Ethnicity, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 56–85. The theoretical basis of this debate can be traced to Edward Said's work on Orientalism and Othering. See Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Vintage, 1979.

29 Jewitt, op. cit. (28), p. 83.

30 Minoti Chakravarty-Kaul, Common Lands and Customary Law: Institutional Change in North India over the Past Two Centuries, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996; Vinita Damodaran, ‘Famine in a forest tract: ecological change and the causes of the 1897 famine in Chota Nagpur, Northern India’, in Richard Hugh Grove, Vinita Damodaran and Satpal Sangwan (eds.), Nature and the Orient, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 853–890.

31 Noting that the critiques of ‘environmental racism’ have been made mostly in a Western context, particularly in the United State, while in the countries of the ‘South’, like India, the notion of ‘environmentalism of the poor’ has been applied more frequently to convey a similar concern about environmental conflicts between communities, corporations and states. Nevertheless, examining the postcolonial settings from an anti-racism perspective, as demonstrated by Parajuli's work, can foreground the social structures that embed environmental inequality and internal colonialism. See Guha and Martínez-Alier, op. cit. (23); Merchant, Carolyn, ‘Shades of darkness: race and environmental history’, Environmental History (2003) 8, pp. 380394; Parajuli, op. cit. (20); Rosen, Ruth, ‘Who gets polluted: the movement for environmental justice’, Dissent (1994) 41, pp. 223230.

32 Parajuli, op. cit. (20).

33 Baviskar, op. cit. (20); Mawdsley, op. cit. (24); Parajuli, op. cit. (20).

34 Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 216–272.

35 Elvin, op. cit. (34), pp. 218–220; Fan, Tong-Shou, ‘Governance of Qian during the early Qing Dynasty (清代前期治黔述论)’, Studies in Qing History (清史研究) (1993) 1, pp. 7382.

36 It has merely been divided by the authority and conceded or leased to Western countries; the experience of Hong Kong with the British is an example.

37 Park, Byung-Kwang, ‘China's ethnic minority policy: between assimilation and accommodation (中國少數民族政策 : 擺盪於同化和融合之間)’, Review of Global Politics (全球政治評論) (2013) 41, pp. 2544; Ronald Francis Price, Education in Modern China, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

38 Hou, Wenhui, ‘The environmental crisis in China and the case for environmental history studies’, Environmental History Review (1990) 14, pp. 151158. Note that this article was a report presented at a conference held in 1989, and the context of the report was mainly discussion of the situation for ‘Chinese historians’ ‘in China’, where, according Hou, ‘history studies are in crisis because of changes in the political and economic situation’ by that time. That is, the paradigm of Marxism and Mao's thought had begun to be criticized and a new paradigm was yet to appear. Of course, recent decades have witnessed an increase in research on Chinese environmental history, such as that of Mark Elvin, Judith Shapiro and Robert Paul Weller.

39 Ho, Peter, ‘Embedded activism and political change in a semiauthoritarian context’, China Information (2007) 21, pp. 187209, 192.

40 Ho, op. cit. (39), pp. 187–188.

41 Robert Paul Weller, Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

42 The concepts of tianzi and tianxia can be traced back to the Zhou (also transliterated ‘Chou’) Dynasty, prior to 221 BC, and were used by subsequent Chinese emperors; scholars suggest that they provided an ideological foundation for the Chinese system of empire. See Ching, Julia, ‘Son of Heaven: sacral kingship in ancient China’, Toung Pao (1997) 83, pp. 341; Yu-lan Feng, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983; Zhao, Tingyang, ‘Rethinking empire from a Chinese concept ‘All-under-Heaven’ (Tian-Xia)’, Social Identities (2006) 12, pp. 2941.

43 Elvin, op. cit. (34).

44 Elizabeth C. Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, 2nd edn, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011; Judith Shapiro, Mao's War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001; Xu, Kai, ‘Review of the recent studies on environmental NGOs in China (近年来中国环境非政府组织研究 : 进展、问题与前景)’, Issues of Contemporary World Socialism (当代世界社会主义问题) (2007) 91, pp. 5361; Yong Dong Zhang, History of Institutional Reform in Rural China after 1949 (一九四九年後中國農村制度變革史), Taipei: Free Culture Press (自由文化出版社), 2008.

45 Shapiro, op. cit. (44).

46 Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard, The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1984.

47 Kenneth Lieberthal and Michel Oksenberg, Policy Making in China: Leaders, Structures, and Processes, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988; Kristen Nicole McDonald, ‘Damming China's Grand Canyon: pluralization without democratization in the Nu River valley’, PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 2007.

48 McDonald, op. cit. (47); Shapiro, op. cit. (44).

49 Economy, op. cit. (44), p. 56.

50 The Save the Nu River movement is one example initiated in 2002. The project was ‘paused’ in 2004 by Wen Jiabao (then premier of the State Council); however, the government is attempting to restart it following the policy of promoting hydropower, mentioned in China's 12th Five-Year Plan. See State Council of the People's Republic of China, ‘12th Five-Year Plan (2011–2015)’, Beijing, 2011.

51 Arun Agrawal, Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

52 Padel and Das, op. cit. (27); Myron Weiner, Sons of the Soil: Migration and Ethnic Conflict in India, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 157.

53 Lei Shen and Philip Andrews-Speed, ‘Economic analysis of reform policies for small coal mines in China’, Resources Policy (2001) 27, pp. 247–254; Wright, op. cit. (11).

54 Shen and Andrews-Speed, op. cit. (53).

55 Ho, op. cit. (39); McDonald, op. cit. (47).

56 Economy, op. cit. (44); Sam Geall, ‘China's environmental journalists: a rainbow confusion’, in Geall (ed.), China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, London: Zed Books, 2013, pp. 15–39; Sleeboom-Faulkner, Margaret, ‘Regulating intellectual life in China: the case of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’, China Quarterly (2007) 189, pp. 8399; Spires, Anthony J., ‘Contingent symbiosis and civil society in an authoritarian state: understanding the survival of China's grassroots NGOs’, American Journal of Sociology (2011) 117, pp. 145.

57 Andrew C. Mertha, China's Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.

58 Liu, Lee, ‘Made in China: cancer villages’, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development (2010) 52, pp. 821; Anna Lora-Wainwright, Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013. ‘“Cancer village” in spotlight’, China Daily, 10 May 2004, available at:, accessed 18 December 2015.

59 Jing Chai, Under the Dome (穹頂之下), 2015, documentary, 104 min., in Chinese.

60 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 2006.

61 Bei-Bei, Shan Cun Feng Yun: The Storm Riders of Mountain Village (山村风云), 2011, feature film, 80 min., in Chinese.

62 Anurag Kashyap, Gangs of Wasseypur (Part I and Part II), 2012, drama feature film, 320 min., in Hindi.

63 Dietmar Rothermund and D.C. Wadhwa (eds.), Zamindars, Mines and Peasants: Studies in the History of an Indian Coalfield and Its Rural Hinterland, New Delhi: Manohar, 1978, p. xv.

64 Corbridge, Stuart, ‘The continuing struggle for India's Jharkhand: democracy, decentralisation and the politics of names and numbers’, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics (2002) 40, pp. 5571; Damodaran, op. cit. (30); Susana Devalle, Discourses of Ethnicity: Culture and Protest in Jharkhand, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1992; Jewitt, op. cit. (28).

65 Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004; Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press, 2004.

66 Corbridge, op. cit. (64); Jewitt, op. cit. (28).

67 Weiner, op. cit. (52).

68 Weiner, op. cit. (52).

69 Corbridge, op. cit. (64); Vinita Damodaran, ‘The politics of marginality and the construction of indigeneity in Chotanagpur’, Postcolonial Studies (2006) 9, pp. 179–196; Devalle, op. cit. (64); Jewitt, op. cit. (28).

70 Jharkhand gained its independence from Bihar in the year 2000. See Corbridge, Jewitt and Kumar, op. cit. (28).

71 National Bureau of Statistics of the People's Republic of China, 2010 Sixth National Population Census Data Gazette (No. 1), 2010, available at, accessed 25 December 2015.

72 ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (STs) is the official designation given to ethnic minority groups by the Indian Constitution.

73 Government of India, Demographic Status of Scheduled Tribe Population of India, 2011, available at, accessed 25 December 2015.

74 Lora-Wainwright, op. cit. (58).

75 Lora-Wainwright, Anna, Zhang, Yiyun, Wu, Yunmei and Rooij, Benjamin van, ‘Learning to live with pollution: the making of environmental subjects in a Chinese industrialized village’, China Journal (2012) 68, pp. 106124.

76 Shapiro, op. cit. (44); Weller, op. cit. (41).

77 ‘The towns of fish and rice’ (yumizhixiang) is used to describe the place where the land is rich in nature, with rivers and proper irrigation systems, so it is very productive in terms of agriculture and aquaculture.

78 Huang, Philip C.C.. ‘“Public sphere”/“civil society” in China? The third realm between state and society’, Modern China (1993) 19, pp. 216240.

79 Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, India: Development and Participation, 2nd edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, especially Chapter 4, ‘India and China’, pp. 112–142; Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World, Boston: Beacon Press, 1967; Gordon White, Jude Howell and Shang Xiaoyuan, In Search of Civil Society: Market Reform and Social Change in Contemporary China, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

80 Spires, op. cit. (56).

81 Lu, Jixia and Lora-Wainwright, Anna, ‘Historicizing sustainable livelihoods: a pathways approach to lead mining in rural central China’, World Development (2014) 62, pp. 189200.

I would like to thank Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner, Vinita Damodaran and Peter Po-Han Lee for their helpful feedback on a previous version of this manuscript. I thank the anonymous reviewers who provided valuable comments. Thanks to the group of scholars involved in this volume for their input. My appreciation also goes to Jahnavi Phalkey, Tong Lam, Sigrid Schmalzer, Elena Songster, Arunabh Ghosh and Diganta Das, for providing me suggestions that helped to improve the presentation of the paper.


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