The Compensation Trap: The Limits of Community-Based Pollution Regulation in China

47 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2012 Last revised: 6 Oct 2014

See all articles by Benjamin van Rooij

Benjamin van Rooij

University of California, Irvine School of Law; University of Amsterdam - Faculty of Law

Date Written: July 18, 2012


Our globe increasingly faces environmental risks from emerging markets such as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. Over the last decade a consensus has developed that the particular social, economic and regulatory contexts of emerging markets require a form of regulation that at leastpartly involves citizens, who it is believed can bring extra capacity and independence to overworked and captured state regulators. This paper focuses on the particular preconditions that are necessary for such citizen-based pollution regulation. It does so through an in-depth ethnographic case study conducted in southwest China, where given serious pollution and a clear awareness of such pollution, citizens have largely organized localized forms of collective action and bargaining without turning to outside regulators, media or courts, seeking compensation instead of prevention and control. The case study demonstrates how local socio-economic processes resulting from rapid industrialization combined with a lack of faith in state institutions have undermined citizens’ attempts to become successful regulators. To move them outside of the so-called ‘compensation trap’ and into a fruitful role as co-regulators, state regulators must learn to better trust and communicate with pollution victims, who can be and should be their natural regulatory allies.

Keywords: Chinese law, environmental law, regulation, governance, collective action

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

van Rooij, Benjamin, The Compensation Trap: The Limits of Community-Based Pollution Regulation in China (July 18, 2012). Pace Environmental Law (PELR) Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2012, Amsterdam Law School Research Paper No. 2012-76, Amsterdam Center for Law & Economics Working Paper No. 2012-02, Available at SSRN:

Benjamin Van Rooij (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 E. Peltason Dr.
Ste. 1000
Irvine, CA 92697-1000
United States

University of Amsterdam - Faculty of Law ( email )

Amsterdam, 1018 WB

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