The Politics of Environmental Justice in China

41 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 24 Jun 2014

See all articles by Richard Balme

Richard Balme

Sciences Po - Centre d'Études Européennes (EEC)

Date Written: August 11, 2011


This paper intends to provide an assessment of the situation of environmental rights in China, to analyse related political interactions, and to discuss their implications for Chinese politics. The study is based on interviews with officials, activists and experts, and on documentation collected in Beijing and in a selection of Chinese provinces (Beijing Municipality, Yunnan, Gansu and Zhejiang provinces) since 2008.

Our argument is organized along three different sections. The first one briefly introduces the principles of environmental justice. We primarily conceive of environmental justice as equity in access to environmental goods, and fairness in social processes dealing with market or government failures to provide environmental security. Section 2 focuses on the distributive dimension of environmental justice in China, and discusses social inequalities in exposure to pollution. It shows that the impact of environmental degradation on health and development has a greater impact on rural than on urban areas, and primarily affects low-income population in both cases. It argues that environmental deterioration has a direct influence on the rise of inequalities in the PRC, and regularly creates situations of extreme injustice, that public authorities so far frequently fail to address. We also show that the intensive use of natural resources creates and exacerbates situations of ethnic tensions or conflicts. Finally, this section argues that environmental inequalities in China need to be understood the general context of globalization, with the environmental impact of the global economy largely concentrating on emerging countries. Section 3 then moves to the procedural dimensions of environmental justice. It shows that the developments of legislation, collective action, public participation and litigation, served as converging factors to allow for some significant improvements in environmental policy-making over the last decade. Although these innovation remained local, and far from reversing the general state of the environment in China, they introduced new patterns of interaction among policy stakeholders. Their long-term effects, however, remain dependent on the commitment of the PRC’s leadership toward a more sustainable pattern of development, and on the political conditions for its implementation. The conclusion summarizes our findings and develops their implications.

Keywords: Environmental Justice, Environmental policy-making, China (PRC).

JEL Classification: D63, D74, D78, K32, K41, Q28

Suggested Citation

Balme, Richard, The Politics of Environmental Justice in China (August 11, 2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Richard Balme (Contact Author)

Sciences Po - Centre d'Études Européennes (EEC) ( email )

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Paris, 75337

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