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Allies in Action: Institutional Actors and Grassroots Environmental Activism in China

Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change

ISBN: 978-1-78756-896-9, eISBN: 978-1-78756-895-2

Publication date: 16 October 2018


Institutional actors are critical allies for grassroots movements, but few studies have examined their effects and variations within the non-democratic context. This chapter argues that while institutional allies are heavily constrained and unlikely to give open endorsement to grassroot activists, some institutional activists indirectly facilitate movement mobilization and favorable outcomes in the process of advancing their own political agendas. Drawing upon in-depth interviews conducted in 2008 and 2012, I illustrate this argument by examining the Anti-PX Movement – a landmark grassroots environmental movement against a chemical plant – in Xiamen, China. I find that the environmental institutional actors were constrained and divided, yet some still fostered opportunities for movement mobilization and in turn exploited the opportunity created by the protesters to pursue their policy interests, thus facilitating positive movement outcomes. As long as the claims are not politically subversive to the authoritarian rule, this type of tacit and tactical interaction between institutional activists within the state and grassroot activists on the street is conducive to promoting progressive policy changes.




My fieldwork was supported by the China Environmental Culture Promotion Association in 2008, and the Paulson Institute and the University of Chicago Center in Beijing in 2012. I thank my team members in the 2008 fieldwork – Lan Yuxin, Chen Lei, Sun Yu, and Chen Qiuhong – and appreciate the help of Chen Shou, Feng Shizheng, Tong Zhifeng, Wang Ming, Xue Lan, and Yuan Ji on my fieldwork. In American University, Molly Bradtke has provided excellent research assistance. Early versions of this chapter were presented at the East Asia Workshop at the University of Chicago and the Paulson Institute. I am grateful to Dingxin Zhao, Elisabeth Clemens, Rachel Robinson, Terry Clark, Omar McRoberts, Yanfei Sun, Yige Dong, Ben Ross, and the workshop participants for their thoughtful comments and suggestion. I also thank the three anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback.


Zhang, Y. (2018), "Allies in Action: Institutional Actors and Grassroots Environmental Activism in China", Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change (Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, Vol. 42), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 9-38.



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