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Making Ecology Developmental: China's Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization in Global Context



Although the science of ecology is often understood in antimodernizing terms, this article shows how ecology in China has become a means to articulate green modernization and sustainable development. As scholars predominantly focus on the policy rhetoric surrounding China’s national modernization and sustainable development program called “ecological civilization building,” the origins of how ecology came to take on developmental meanings remain obscure. This article highlights moments of global exchange and knowledge production by Chinese Marxists, earth systems scientists, and economists that produced eco- developmental logics. These logics define an interventionist role for the state, frame urbanization as moral progress, and refashion the role of the peasantry from the revolutionary vanguard to a backward social force impeding modernization. Ecological sciences in China, therefore, lay an epistemological foundation for legitimizing state-led technocratic practices of socioenvironmental engineering and naturalizing social inequalities between “urban” and “rural” people. In highlighting Chinese scientists’ agency in producing knowledge, this article counters diffusionist accounts of science as singular systematically organized branches of knowledge that emanate from the West. Instead, I demonstrate how ecology is contingent on the historical and political conditions through which it takes on meaning. In the context of China, ecology has become integral to environmental governance, state formation, and uneven relations of power.
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Making Ecology Developmental: China’s
Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization
in Global Context
Jesse Rodenbiker
To cite this article: Jesse Rodenbiker (2021): Making Ecology Developmental: China’s
Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization in Global Context, Annals of the American
Association of Geographers, DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2020.1863766
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Making Ecology Developmental: Chinas
Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization
in Global Context
Jesse Rodenbiker
Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, Cornell University
Although the science of ecology is often understood in antimodernizing terms, this article shows how
ecology in China has become a means to articulate green modernization and sustainable development. As
scholars predominantly focus on the policy rhetoric surrounding Chinas national modernization and
sustainable development program called ecological civilization building,the origins of how ecology came to
take on developmental meanings remain obscure. This article highlights moments of global exchange and
knowledge production by Chinese Marxists, earth systems scientists, and economists that produced eco-
developmental logics. These logics define an interventionist role for the state, frame urbanization as moral
progress, and refashion the role of the peasantry from the revolutionary vanguard to a backward social force
impeding modernization. Ecological sciences in China, therefore, lay an epistemological foundation for
legitimizing state-led technocratic practices of socioenvironmental engineering and naturalizing social
inequalities between urbanand ruralpeople. In highlighting Chinese scientistsagency in producing
knowledge, this article counters diffusionist accounts of science as singular systematically organized branches
of knowledge that emanate from the West. Instead, I demonstrate how ecology is contingent on the
historical and political conditions through which it takes on meaning. In the context of China, ecology has
become integral to environmental governance, state formation, and uneven relations of power. Key Words:
China, ecological civilization, ecology, modernization, science and technology studies.
China is vigorously making ecological endeavors to
foster a new pattern of modernization featuring
harmony between man and nature.
Xi Jinping, at the Paris Climate Accord (2015)
Urbanization is both the carrier and driving force of
Chinas economic development and social progress. Its
benefits are significant and sustainable in the process
of social and economic transformation and ecological
civilization construction.
Pan (2013a, 90)
Chinas green modernization campaigncom-
monly referred to as ecological civilization build-
ing (shengtai wenming jianshe)is capacious in
scope and character. The phrase is used in official
state development plans to discuss urbanization,
renewable industries, agricultural modernization,
social progress, and spiritual development. Ecological
civilization building encompasses many meanings,
evinced by the 2012 constitutional amendment that
reads, The Development of Ecological Civilization
should be integrated into all aspects and the whole
process of economic development, political develop-
ment, cultural development, and social devel-
opment(Hu 2012). Such broad statements,
originating in the upper echelons of the Chinese
Communist Party, signal the cornucopian scope of a
new human relationship with nature.This political
story in turn permeates popular media and green pol-
icy prescriptions (Jun 2007; Zhang 2013).
Popular media accounts surrounding ecological
civilization building suggest that the concept
emerged in 2007 in a famous speech by Hu Jintao
during the 17th National Party Congress (Zhang and
Wan 2013). Hu proclaimed the importance of
building an ecological civilizationby modeling
growth and consumption, modeling energy and
resource use, and protecting the environment
(Ecological Civilization2007). Scholars of ecologi-
cal modernization echo this narrative by framing
ecological civilization building as a green alter-
nativeto industrial civilizationsof the West
(L. Zhang, Mol, and Sonnenfeld 2007; Pan 2013a;
Wan 2013; Zhang and Wan 2013; Weng et al.
2015). Other work highlights important moments
Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 0(0) 2021, pp. 118 #2021 by American Association of Geographers
Initial submission, February 2020; revised submissions, June and September 2020; final acceptance, October 2020
Published by Taylor & Francis, LLC.
when ecological civilization building was written
into central state policy, government documents,
and political rhetoric (Geall and Ely 2018).
Consistent throughout extant scholarship is the
framing of ecological civilization building as a depar-
ture from both the Western industrial development
model and Chinas post-1978 development boom,
which prized gross domestic product growth over
environmental protection. These approaches over-
look the roles that scientific knowledge production
plays in shaping developmental logics of ecological
modernization and uneven relations of power.
In this article, I ask these questions: How was this
particular way of understanding modernity and sus-
tainable development historically produced? What
are the implications of this ecological modernist
vision for socioenvironmental organization and state
power? I address these questions by historicizing the
emergence of eco-developmental logics embedded in
the writings, global engagements, and scientific work
of key Chinese scientists. Ecology, in China, has
come to be understood both as a form of science and
developmental attainment. That is, ecology connotes
not only a science of relations between organisms
and physical environments but also a desired future
state that can be realized through socioenvironmen-
tal engineering. Chinas environmental scientists
and state representatives frame national development
as a series of progressive stages of improvement that
entail the state to be actively involved in urbanizing
the rural population as the logical path to building
an ecological and civilized future. The practical
effects of these logics produce an array of population
control mechanisms and green developmental prac-
tices, many of which unevenly displace rural popula-
tions through state-led projects coded as
improvement (Chan and Zhang 1999; Xun and Bao
2007; Yeh 2009,2013; Pow 2018; Rodenbiker 2019,
2020). The aim of this article is to demonstrate how
the production of scientific knowledge became
embroiled in exclusionary technocratic polices cen-
tral to Chinas ecological modernization and state
power. To do so, I present and discuss core themes
of twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Chinese
environmental thought.
I begin my analysis with the coining of the
Chinese term ecology, a word with roots in Japanese
botany, before turning to the writing of early
Marxist figure Li Dazhao, who was central in bring-
ing notions of malleable social forces from Marxist
thought into China during the Republican period
(19121949). Li reformulated Marxs theories of
political change within the Chinese context by
claiming that Chinas peasantry would be the revolu-
tionary vanguard. This notion proved central to
Mao Zedongs efforts to harness power and form the
Peoples Republic of China in 1949. I then turn to
ecological Marxists of the early reform era, such as
Wang Jin, Renmin University professor of Marxist-
Leninist thought, who contributed to overturning
Lis assertion through his readings of North
American political economists. Crystallizing a new
scientific understanding emerging during the reform
era, which became central to Chinese Marxism,
Wang held the peasantry to be a backward social
force holding China back from green developmental
modernity. Simultaneously in the 1980s, new totaliz-
ing approaches to socioenvironmental management
emerged from prominent earth systems scientist Ma
Shijun and his student Wang Rusong. They coined
the socialeconomiecological complex systems the-
ory, which introduced systems science approaches
such as socioenvironmental modeling and functional
land zoningto Chinas sustainable development.
Finally, I examine the work of ecological economists,
such as Ye Qianji and Pan Jiahua, key figures in
refashioning industrial ecology models for Chinas
agricultural modernization, thereby popularizing
rationales for an interventionist state. Many of the
elite scientists I discuss served as state representa-
tives on the environment. Those who did not were
influential to state leaders. Each was among the first
to articulate enduring developmental logics in eco-
logical terms that have become part of contemporary
state sustainable development projects. Embedded
within these social and natural forms of ecological
sciences are rationales for state-led social and envi-
ronmental engineering that animate Chinas ecologi-
cal civilization building programs.
Situating Ecology
The Chinese term ecology is a neologism that
traveled from Japan to China through the work of
late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century botanist
Miyoshi Manabu (18611939), who coined the
Japanese term ecology (seitaigaku). This term came
to China through Meiji-era texts written by
Miyoshi. Miyoshi is also credited with associating
ecology with landscape aesthetics. Ueda (2015)
2 Rodenbiker
argued that seitai-kankyo, a Japanese term connoting
ecological environment, and the analogous Chinese
term shengtai huanjing are distinct from the English
ecology and the German
Okologie. Ecology in China
has taken on meanings from biology, botany, and
engineering that traverse valences of morality, aes-
thetics, and environmental controllability. Ecology
came to be expressed in two ways in Chinese.
Ecology, as shengtai huanjing, is a four-character set
connoting ecology and environment. The other is
shengtai. Both mean ecology, but the former con-
notes ecological conditions and environments inter-
dependent with human activities. The latter
connotes the science of ecology (shengtaixue) and
relations between biotic and abiotic entities.
Highlighting discrepancies between the meanings of
ecology across contexts is a starting point toward
recognizing that ecology is a contingent form of
knowledge, a situated universal that emerges through
particular historical conjunctures.
In a highly influential work, Haraway (1988)
argued that knowledge formations are relational and
that knowledge is conditioned by the context in
which it emerges. Drawing on this insight, I argue
that ecology, like any science, is a situated way of
knowing that comes into being through historical
practices of exchange, writing, collective experimen-
tation, interpretation, and claims making. Because
ecology emerged in the United States as a science of
complexity to undermine modernist claims about
environmental management,
Western environmen-
tal historians have tended to frame ecology as posing
a challenge to modernist thought.
In China, how-
ever, ecology provides the epistemological ground-
work for modernist narratives about ecological
civilization building and sustainable development. In
the vein of Williams (1980), who argued that forms
of nature are always the product of social and histor-
ical context, I assert that ecological sciences in
China have their own history of formation steeped
in global exchanges.
Scholars of ecology across national contexts have
demonstrated how scientific knowledge, often con-
sidered to be universal and emanating from Global
North to Global South or West to East, is produced
through global exchanges and localized meaning-
making practices (Lewis 2004; Hathaway 2013; Lowe
2013). For instance, in considering the global circu-
lation of environmental movements, Hathaway
(2013) drew on the Chinese metaphor of winds
(feng) to argue that knowledge circulates globally in
contingent and multidirectional ways. For Hathaway,
when ideas enter new geographic spheres, they are
remade with new meanings contingent on local con-
texts, which generates new scientific innovations
and practices. A key insight from his work is that
there is continual movement between the localiza-
tion and universalizability of knowledge. Hathaway
conceptualizes the content and meanings of scien-
tific knowledge to be coterminous across geographi-
cal spaces, however. In contrast, I contend that a
plurality of meanings exist under a given scientific
knowledge signifier and that uneven power relations
permeate the process of knowledge production and
forms of knowledge. Ecology emerges from a multi-
plicity of actions, actors, places, and claims within
localized contexts shaped by uneven global relations
of power.
This conceptualization of ecological knowledge
formation more closely aligns with those of Lewis
(2004) and Lowe (2013), who emphasized that pro-
cesses of global knowledge formation are inseparable
from power relations. Lewiss(2004) study of biodi-
versity conservation in India debunked diffusionist,
unidirectional cultural imperialist, and globalization
models of how ideas circulate. For Lewis, what con-
stituted ecology was not merely a local instantiation
of a global idea or process (Appadurai 1996) but
assemblages of powers mediated by cross-cultural
exchanges of scientific practices, research agendas,
and flows of ideas. Analogously, Lowes(2013) study
of biodiversity conservation in Indonesia illustrated
how ideas of ecology emerged through interactions
between local Togean people, Indonesian scientists,
European-American scientists, and development
institutionsstratified through perduring colonial
legacies. Lowes work brought attention to how
objects of knowledge and their associations shift
over time. Shifting meanings, in turn, shape the sub-
jects of knowledge and uneven subject positional-
ities. Ecological knowledges therefore shape relations
of power.
Chinas central government articulates sustainable
national development and ecological modernization
as ecological civilization buildingofficially written
into the Chinese Communist Party constitution in
2012. Such phenomena reflect crucial ways in which
the articulation of ecology and state power in China
are intertwined. The history of how they became
intertwined is rooted in Chinas global exchanges
Chinas Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization 3
across ecological Marxism, earth systems science,
and ecological economics. Historically situating the
emergence of ecology in China reveals a particular
instance of how sustainability sciences take on
meanings. This calls into question how sustainability
and ecology are conceptualized, how they function,
and whom they serve (Sze 2018). It also reveals
ecology as a situated form of knowing with particular
logics that detail roles and positionalities for the
state and society. As I show, these logics frame the
Chinese peasantry as a backward force in need of
improvement through urbanization and the state as
technical manager of ecological modernization.
Scholars of ecological modernity trace two
strands: one cornucopian in scope, described as
techno-optimistic, and the other Keynesian insofar
as it stresses the need for a strong regulatory state
(Muldavin 2007). Northern and Eastern European
variants hold that a strong civil society, corporate
responsibility, and new industries will generate tech-
nological advances that accompany industrialization
to remedy environmentally degrading aspects of
green transition (Hajer 1995; Buttel 2000). In con-
trast, Muldavin (2007) considered Chinas approach
to ecological modernity as a Keynesian varianta
highly interventionist state with strong regulatory
power. This variant entails ecological modernization
as a state-led political project (Buttel 2000).
Attention to the developmental logics underlying
ecological modernization is crucial to identifying
how ecology bolsters state power and legitimacy. In
this vein, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has offi-
cially labeled Chinas ecological modernization drive
as the second modernization.Their report dis-
cussed how Chinese society has moved through
primitivecivilization, up through industrial civili-
zation, and is now becoming a knowledgeciviliza-
tion through technically managing and improving
ecology. According to the report, obtaining this
form of eco-rationalityis the highest level of
development (L. Zhang, Mol, and Sonnenfeld 2007,
66162). Development narratives such as this are
key to framing ecological civilization building as a
historical apex.
In what follows I discuss the historical emergence
of ecodevelopmental logics that define right
relationshipswith nature through state interven-
tions. These interventions are narrativized as
bringing about civilizational progress by modernizing
a backward peasantry through urbanization.
Underlying my discussion is the understanding that
subjectivities form through relations of knowledge
and power.
By way of analogy, the contemporary
moment in China wherein ecology serves to bolster
state power resembles how U.S. ethnologists
theorized the nature of indigenous savagery as a sci-
entific reality to justify violent civilizingmissions
of Western expansion.
In place of ethnologists,
Chinas natural and social scientists produce ecode-
velopmental logics that underlie hegemonic narra-
tives of civilizational progress and sustainable
development. The injustices perpetuated through
dichotomous tropes of civilizedas outside of and in
control of nature, embodied in the state technocrat
and modern urbanite, largely fall on the uncivilized
peasantry who have come to be understood as the
population to be improved upon through ecology.
Tracing how ecology in China has come to take on
these meanings is a step toward undoing the claims
on nature made in the name of ecological civiliza-
tion building.
From Vanguard to Vagrant: Contrapuntal
Roles of Chinas Peasantry
This section illustrates how the role of the peas-
antry transformed from the revolutionary vanguard,
articulated through the work of Li Dazhao to a back-
ward social force impeding modernization. These
contrasting theorizations of the peasantry within
Chinese Marxism emerged through two ruptures.
First, Lis work remade Marxian notions of class
struggle, which held the urban proletariat to be the
key motor of revolutionary change. In a departure
from this common reading of Marx,
Li argued that
the Chinese peasantry would be the social force for
class leveling and revolution. The second moment of
rupture came in the early reform era when Chinese
intellectuals, including self-proclaimed ecological
Marxists, overturned Lis thesis and argued that the
peasantry was a backward social force impeding
During the Republican period (19121949), strug-
gles over the meaning of science were as far ranging
as the claims of what science could do for the coun-
try (Shen 2014). Li Dazhao cofounded the
Communist Party of China with Chen Duxiu on 1
July 1921. For Li, the science of Marxism held prom-
ise to remake the country. Born into a peasant fam-
ily in Hebei Province, Li studied political economy
4 Rodenbiker
at Waseda University in Japan from 1914 to 1916.
He returned to China to become one of the preemi-
nent scholars and leading intellectuals of the New
Culture Movement and the May Fourth Movement.
Through his writings he laid foundations for Chinese
Marxist theories of historical change. When Li
became professor of economy and head librarian at
Peking University in 1920, he employed a penniless
peasant named Mao Zedong as a library clerk. Mao
joined Lis Marxist reading group. Lis ideas on the
role of the peasantry in revolution became central to
Maos political vision that led the Chinese
Communist Party to power.
Li was an early advocate for the peasantry as the
source of political revolution. Li developed his per-
spectives on revolution and Marxism through global
engagements with Marxists, the French and Russian
revolutions, and Enlightenment European writers.
Through reflecting on global cases and writings, Li
came to view China as latent with surplus energy for
sociopolitical transformation. Inspired by Trotskys
ideas of permanent revolution,
Li viewed backward-
ness as a harbinger of political change. In A
Comparison of the French and Russian Revolutions
D. Li (1918) wrote:
From the point of view of the history of civilizations,
any particular national civilization has its period of
flourishing and its period of decline. The countries of
Europe, like France and England, have reached a
period of maturity in civilization. They no longer have
the strength to advance any further. Because of
isolation, Russias progress in civilization was
comparatively slow with respect to the other nations of
Europe, and just because of its comparative slowness,
in the evolution of civilization, there existed surplus
energy (yuli) for development (suoyi shangyou
xiangshang fazhan zhi yuli).
This excerpt indicates how Li understood potential
for historical transformation to derive from social
and economic backwardness. It also indicates how
his ideas of historical change were linear and pro-
gressive and operate through the mobilization of
social energies or forces. When the Chinese
Communist Party was established, Li considered
Chinas revolutionary potential to be lodged within
the body politic of the peasantry.
As an early interpreter of Marxism and visionary
for the Chinese Communist Party, Li considered the
aim of socialist writing and theory to inspire and
transform historical conditions. In his essays My
Marxist Views (D. Li 1919) and The Essentials of
Historical Study (D. Li 1924), Li argued that members
of each generation make their own futures through
harnessing social energies. Lis notions of historical
transformation were informed by his engagement
with the European Scientific Revolution. The
European Enlightenment era brought about notions
of anthropogenic historiography wherein human
agents are the drivers of historical change. This the-
orization of historical change was developed by uni-
versalist historians, such as Nicolas de Condorcet,
Henri de Saint-Simon, and Auguste Comte,
Li argued were foundational to Marxist philosophy
and therefore the scientific basis of socialism.
intellectual exchange with Marxist historiography
echoes the principle that human interactions with
the material environment drive historical transfor-
mation. Li was an iconoclast, also departing from
the Confucian historiographical tradition, which
looked back toward exemplary persons and actions
for models to create social order. His work laid epis-
temological foundations for Maos revolutionary class
leveling projects, in which the peasantry figured as
the revolutionary vanguard, capable of forging a
new nation.
Mao came to power, in part, due to his ability to
mobilize the peasantry, which he viewed as a crucial
source of revolutionary potential dialectically situ-
ated between class differences and material interests
(Mao 1927,1956). Under Maos reign the peasantry
continued, at least rhetorically, to hold elevated
positions within official state ideology as the van-
guard of the party (Walder 2015), despite the fact
that Chinas socialist command economy pricing sys-
tem deflated the value of agricultural products while
artificially raising the value of industrial goods pro-
duced in urban areas, which materially repressed
rural people (Selden 1993). This changed when the
Maoist period ended and Deng Xiaoping came into
power as the face of Chinas party-state leadership.
Deng instituted postsocialist reforms in the early
1980s, and he signaled a shift in state approaches to
science and ideology by advocating for scientific
The politics of regime change and socioeconomic
reform precipitated ideological struggles over the role
of peasantry. As Chinese socialism began to open up
to global capitalism, the Maoist celebration of the
peasant vanguard became untenable. Theoretical
repositioning of the role of the peasant emerged
Chinas Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization 5
from two interrelated necessities. The first was the
need to retheorize state-led socialism, as it went
through market reforms in the languages and theo-
ries of science and modernity. This was necessary for
the party-state to portray political continuity with
socialist predecessors. Second, with postsocialist
socioeconomic transitions including the decollectiv-
ization of land, introduction of a household responsi-
bility system that individualized production, and
massive infusions of state funding into the rural
economy, the new reality of the peasant as an entre-
preneurial farmer became logically inconsistent with
the notion of the peasantry as a source of revolu-
tionary potential. To explain marketization processes
and growing inequalities that emerged through inte-
gration with capitalist market forces, the figure of
the peasant required new rationalization. Even
though divergent positions emerged among Chinas
intellectual elites critical of orthodox Maoist views,
the predominant mode of argumentation held that
the peasantry represented a backward social group
prone to populist politics emblematic of the failures
of a totalitarian state (Day 2013).
According to
Chinas reform-era intellectual elites, the peasantry,
much like the nation, was in desperate need of mod-
ernization. As a social group, the peasantry became
framed as a backward population in need of qualita-
tive improvement initiated by state technocrats.
The reorientation of Chinese socialismand
Marxist categories occurred simultaneously with an
intellectual shift to systems science thinking.
Through global engagements with ecological
thought, reform-era political economists reimagined
the Chinese peasantry as a regressive and backward
social force holding China back from modernization,
which became framed as ecological civilization. A
February 1985 article titled The Way to Cultivate
Individual Ecological Civilization Under Conditions
of Mature Socialism(zai chengshu shehuizhuyi tiaojian
xia peiyang geren shengtai wenming de tujing), pub-
lished in the Guangming Daily, is one of the earliest
Chinese publications to use the phrase ecological
civilization(S. Zhang 1985). This article summa-
rized a conference on scientific Marxism at Moscow
University that discussed ecological civilization as a
way of remaking socialism. The article claims that
ecological civilization is a conjoining of Marxist-
Leninist science and ecological sciences that will
restore the degraded relationship between humans
and nature. This process involves transforming the
holistic makeup of all individuals to develop harmo-
niously with the earth (meige ren zhenzheng quan-
mian, xie di fazhan). Subsequent work throughout the
1980s and 1990s details how ecological civilization
can be cultivated through technocratically orches-
trating industrial modernity.
The 1986 article Ecological Marxism and
Ecological Socialism,written by Renmin University
Professor of Marxist-Leninist Thought Wang Jin,
crystallized new roles of the peasantry and the state
(J. Wang 1986). Wang elaborated a vision for
Chinas ecological Marxism through references to two
movements in the industrialized West. One is scholarly
works by North Atlantic political economists. The
other is the establishment of green parties in Western
Europe. Wang suggested that China look to political
and scholarly movements in the West to remake its
socialist system as a form of ecological socialism.
In laying out an argument for ecological Marxism
in China, Wang discussed how an ecological con-
sciousness (shengtai yishi) emerged in the industrial-
ized capitalist West during the late 1960s. He
historicized this shift in global environmental aware-
ness and a shift toward ecological Marxism through
Bouldings(1953)The Organizational Revolution,
Aggers(1979) writing on Western Marxism, Leisss
(1976) critique of the commodity production glut in
The Limits of Satisfaction, and Schumachers(1975)
economic argument that small is beautiful.
Although not explicitly ecological Marxist in the
Western codex,
Wang drew on these works in lay-
ing out an argument for an ecological Marxist vision
of revolutionizing technical production and moral
ideals in China.
Wang emphasized how the contradictions of early
Western capitalism are quite different from industrial-
ization in China. For Wang, in the early industrial
period globally, it seemed as if the Earths resources
were inexhaustible. In contrast, political economists
of the 1950s through the 1970s pointed to the limita-
tions of resources and demanded an appropriate
response. They proposed radically remaking produc-
tion and consumption to create equilibrium between
the resources available and human need. Remaking
consumption within industrial capitalism, for Wang,
entailed reorganizing labor through new technologies
and redirecting attention away from productionthe
focus of much of Western Marxismto alienated
consumptionincluding the role of capital in shaping
desires and consumption patterns (J. Wang 1986).
6 Rodenbiker
In a reversion of Maoist Marxism, Wang praised
green intellectuals as the emergent force of industri-
alized capitalist nations. In referring to ecological
socialism,he lauded the Green parties emerging in
Germany, Finland, and Belgium during the 1980s, as
well as the Federal German Green Party in popular-
izing an ecological consciousness during the 1960s
(J. Wang 1986). What Wang calls an ecological
socialist model, however, has more in common with
Malthus than Marx because it articulates a vision of
population control that closely resembles Chinas
population control measures, in place since 1979.
Wang advocated for strict population and resource
control, as well as the notion of creating an equilib-
rium between economic growth and environmental
protection. He discussed this as bringing about
steady-state economics. Although steady-state eco-
nomics is often discussed as a national economy that
does not fluctuate in size, Wang framed the steady-
state economy as a national economy that cannot
exceed the limits of natural resources.
He called
this the steady-state socialist economic model
(wentai de shehui zhuyi jingji moshi; J. Wang 1986).
The notion of creating ecological balance or an
equilibrium between economic growth and environ-
mental protection, discussed in Wangs article as a
key facet of the steady-state socialist economic
model, became a central feature of Chinas state
vision for ecological civilization building. In contrast
with the socialist-era legacy, Wang argued that the
source of sociopolitical transformation lies with elite
scientists rather than the peasantry. He described
the people who should take part in redirecting tech-
nology as intellectuals (zhishifenzi); for example, pro-
fessors, lawyers, and doctors. Wangs articulation of
ecological Marxism is critical of North Atlantic
political economists for not accounting for the role
of the state in remaking social relations. In contrast,
Wang held that strong state power and intervention
are necessary to bring about the socialist steady-state
economy. Without state intervention, he suggested, it
would be impossible to reorganize society.
What came to be called ecological Marxism in
China rationalized the peasantry as a population
that needs to be improved on by the state. The
global exchanges of Chinese elites, such as Wang,
forged the notion that society can be progressively
transformed through harnessing social forces lodged
in the rural population. This alternative theorization
of the peasantry became a central feature of Chinas
ecological modernist vision. This version of Marxist
science coupled with systems science supported a
particular ecological modernist vision of organizing
state and society. This materializes through systems
science practices of socioenvironmental modeling,
functional land zoning, and measuring carrying
capacity, which I discuss in the following sections.
Systems Science Techniques of Progress:
Sustainable Development,
Socioenvironmental Modeling, and
Functional Land Zoning
This section examines the work of earth systems
scientists Ma Shijun, Wang Rusong, and Ouyang
Zhiyun, who laid the foundation for and administer
systems science approaches to sustainable develop-
ment now ubiquitous across China. They articulated
a moral vision of ecological modernization and sus-
tainable development through systems science
approaches to socioenvironmental management.
The ecologist Ma Shijun was shaped by and
shaped global scientific exchanges that defined sus-
tainability on national and global scales. After
matriculating from the University of Minnesota in
1950 with a study of moth larvae control, he
returned to China in 1952. During the reform era,
he rose through the ranks to become a national-level
leader and state representative on environmental
affairs. From the late 1970s, in the wake of the
Great Leap Forward, he began publishing on sustain-
ability and sustainable development. He first began
writing on continual regeneration potential
(chiyongxu de zaisheng chuanli), then continuing
development(chixu fazhan), and eventually
continuous development(kechixu fazhan). In the
postBrundtland Commission era, Mas continuous
development (kechixu fazhan) came to be translated
as sustainable development. Ma served on the
Brundtland Commission, as a member of the United
Nations World Commission on the Environment,
and was one of the principal authors of Our
Common Future issued in 1987 (Brundtland 1987).
The work became a touchstone for defining sustain-
ability globally for decades.
Mas theorization of the socialeconomicecologi
cal system(shehui jingji shengtai xitong) approach,
published before the Brundtland Report Our
Common Future, provided direction for Chinas
Chinas Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization 7
ecological modernization programs. Notions of eco-
logical balance and rules by which ecosystems func-
tion rose to prominence in part due to S. Mas work.
In the 1981 article The Function of Ecological Rules in
Environmental Management, Ma defined key concepts
of sustainable development in China. He detailed
the structure of ecosystem functioning as an integral
whole called the socialeconomicecological sys-
tem(S. Ma 1981). In this work, Ma conceived of
human progress and civilizational transformation
through interactions within an integrated ecological,
social, and economic complex system. Within his
teleological narration, humans began as primitive
(yuanshi) beings who maintained their material lives
through struggling with nature. As humans devel-
oped scientific technologies, society progressed
through stages of development in a linear fashion
tending toward modern (jindai) humanity. Modern
development, though, Ma suggested, has also brought
about ecosystem disequilibrium. Disequilibrium, for
Ma, emerges from monopoly capitalistsignorance of
human dependence on the natural environment and
their predatory approach to natural resource use
(S. Ma 1981). Ma advocated for a new relationship
with nature through socialist environmental planning
based in earth systems science.
For Ma, modern socialism requires restructuring
relationships between socioeconomic organization
and the natural world. Bringing about this new stage
of scientifically basedsocialism, Ma argued,
requires adopting systems science principles to man-
age natural resources and industry, which will maxi-
mize production and generate a harmonious
relationship (xietiao guanxi) between humans and
nature (S. Ma 1981). This entails optimizing ecosys-
tem functionality and maximizing the production
and circulation efficiency of energy and material
goods in the industrial production process through
functional land zoning and subsystem modeling.
Ma held that a complex systems structure (fuhe
xitong jiegou) could be achieved through a coordi-
nated systems approach encompassing industrial pro-
duction, natural functions, and biophysical metabolic
effects. He contended that systems scientists can cre-
ate a holistic network of circulation that optimizes
the material metabolism of materials, waste (feiwu),
and energy (nengliang) by coordinating opennatu-
ral systems (ziran kaifangxi) and human-made
closedsystems (rengong gongchengde bihuan xitong)
of industrial production (S. Ma 1981).
Central to this schema are coordinated functional
zones with built environments for human habitation
(juminqu), surrounded by agricultural production
areas (nongye shengchanqu), industrial production
areas (gongye shengchanqu), water storage areas, and
natural ecosystem areas (shengtai xitongqu). Each
functional zone within the integrated whole has its
own distinct, yet integrated, material metabolism to
supplement subsystem functionality (buchong
zuoyong;S.Ma1981). Ma advocated for systems
modeling to determine how to manage the relation-
ship between functional zones.
Mas systems science approaches, particularly
systems modeling and functional land zoning, prolif-
erated in conjunction with his positions as a state
advisor and leader of scientific organizations. At the
time The Function of Ecological Rules in Environmental
Management was published, S. Ma (1981) was work-
ing in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He later
became chairman of the Chinese Ecological Society
and then advisor for the State Council Environmental
Protection Commission. He served on multiple
national and international boards from the late 1970s
up to his passing in 1991. Mas ideas remain promi-
nent in Chinas environmental sciences and came to
be articulated in relation to urban environmental
management through his student Wang Rusong.
Wang Rusong brought earth systems science
thinking to the management of urban environments.
Ma Shijun and Wang Rusong jointly published The
SocialEconomicNatural Complex System (S. Ma and
Wang 1984). This article reiterates the socialeco-
nomicecological system concept, discussed in S.
Mas(1981) article, in relation to agrarian and urban
environments. The social, economic, and, in this
iteration, natural (ziran) were described as part of an
interlinked system, within which no parts are totally
separate. In this work, the authors advocated for
coordinated systems management of urban environ-
ments. They argued that, to optimally manage com-
plex systems, scientists must consider environmental
problems as having multiple forms of causation.
They demanded recognition of the multiple rela-
tional feedbacks in complex systems, which can be
stabilized through systems science managerial tech-
niques. Ma and Wangs work reduced complex inter-
actions to mathematical formulae in an effort to
model and optimize landscape functions. They
claimed that once functional equilibrium is obtained,
development will be continuous or sustainable.
8 Rodenbiker
In their policy recommendations, the authors argued
that it is necessary to build satellite cities and new
ecological attractions (tigao xinqu de shengtai xinyinli;
S. Ma and Wang 1984). As a leading urban ecologist
and public scholar in China, Wang promoted eco-city
development from the 1990s through the mid- to early
2000s. He served as the president of Chinas Ecological
Society. From the early 1990s he served as the director
of the Department of Systems Ecology of the Chinese
Academy of Sciences. Chinas central state adopted
environmental modeling, building satellite cities, and
functional land zoning as key components of city man-
agement during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Systems scientist Ouyang Zhiyun obtained his
PhD in 1994 under the tutelage of Wang Rusong
and Ma Shijun at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
and is currently the lead scientist managing Chinas
national functional land zoning. R. S. Wang and
Ouyangs(2012) article SocialEconomicNatural
Complex Ecological Systems and Sustainable
Developmentreprises the vision for totalizing
environmental management through principles of
ecology. In their description of environmental man-
agement, they emphasized improving on the envi-
ronment by using engineering technologies that
model nature (moni ziran de yi men gongcheng jishu).
Through modeling nature, they suggested, humans
can cultivate moral character (xiushenyangxing) and
create an ecology that is pleasing to the eye (yishen
yuemu) in ways that can help society come to realize
the aesthetics of nature (ganwu tiangong de yimenziran
meixue). Ecology in this work additionally connotes
the condition of an ideal state of overall harmony
between humans and the environment (hexie huo
lixiang zhuangtai de xingrongci, biaoshi shengming he
huanjing gunxijian yi zhong zhengti; R. S. Wang and
Ouyang [2012], 338). R. S. Wang and Ouyang
(2012) argued that systems theories should be
applied to urban and rural construction through eco-
logical planning, ecological engineering, and ecologi-
cal management.
These ecodevelopmental logics, shaped by Ma
Shijun, Wang Rusong, and Ouyang Zhiyuns articu-
lation of earth systems science, provided direction
for state environmental management from the 1980s
onward. In the 1980s, ecological construction models
were introduced at various government administra-
tive levels (R. S. Wang and Ouyang 2012). During
the 1990s, ecosystem engineering principles coupled
with administrative planning led to demarcations of
ecological cities,”“ecological provinces,and
ecological counties,which served as models of eco-
logical construction (R. S. Wang and Ouyang 2012,
342). In the 2000s a wide array of ecological demar-
cations began to span administrative levels from vil-
lages and municipalities to provinces (Zhao 2011;L
et al. 2013; Rodenbiker 2020). Parceling cities and
land into planned functional areas is a central fea-
ture of systems scientistsenvironmental manage-
ment legacy. Functional land zoning became a
prominent feature of Chinas state scientific
approaches to sustainable land management nation-
wide (Fan and Li 2009) and remains so during the
Xi Jinping era (Rodenbiker 2020). Currently,
Ouyang Zhiyun is the director of the Research
Center of Eco-Environmental Sciences in the
Chinese Academy of Sciences and director of the
State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional
Ecology. He is spearheading Chinas national ecosys-
tem assessment programs (Ouyang et al. 2016) and
Chinas central government efforts to institute
national functional ecological zoning and redlining
programs across the country (China Council for
International Cooperation on Environment and
Development 2014).
These scientists narrate ecodevelopmental logics
underlying systems science approaches to environ-
mental management as moral techniques of progress.
First, their work highlights the human as part of
nature and the environment, yet in control of nature
through technical management. They therefore
advocate for technoscientific control of socionatural
systems. Second, they characterize ecology through
an aesthetic mode as both inherent in nature,
yet also a quality that can be introduced through
human intervention. Ecology, in the latter sense, is
conceptualized as essentially malleableboth a
source and site of beautyintroduced through mana-
gerial techniques such as landscape design for eco-
logical functionality.
The third logic points toward
a future state of attaining ecological balance, which
justifies technomanagerial practices with the expec-
tation of achieving balance between humans and
nature. This logic holds that ecological engineering
through environmental modeling and functional
land zoning will transform agricultural society into
ecological society.
Embedded within these systems science logics is a
teleological notion of progress toward an ecological
Chinas Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization 9
society, which Wang Rusong discussed as the highest
stage of civilization (R. S. Wang 1999). Figure 1,
from Wang, illustrates this teleological logic through
an arrow connoting sustainable development under-
lying progressive steps from a society characterized
by traditional agriculture to ecological society.
Ecological Economic Rationales for an
Interventionist State: Industrializing
Agriculture, Managing Carrying Capacity,
and the Peasantry
This section draws on the work of Ye Qianji and
Pan Jiahua to illustrate ecological economic ration-
ales for state intervention in socioenvironmental
management. Through drawing on industrial ecology
and ecological economic approaches that quantify
material flows and production processes, these scien-
tists hold the peasantry as a source of environmental
degradation and the technical management of agri-
culture and population as keys to restoring ecological
balance. Contrary to the claim that ecological eco-
nomics originated in Sweden in 1982 (Røpke 2004),
Shi (2002) argued that Ma Shijun (noted earlier)
and economist Xu Dixin formally proposed
ecological economicsas a field of knowledge at a
Beijing conference in September 1980.
economists developed humannatural systems models
alongside systems scientists, thereby conceiving of
nature as a set of integrated material flows that can
be measured, assigned values, and managed (Gregson
et al. 2015).
Ye Qianji was among the earliest agricultural
economists to draw on the language of ecological
civilization in relation to agriculture (Q. J. Ye 1987,
1988). Ye studied agricultural economics at Cornell
University from 1936 to 1938 and later served as a
Food and Agriculture Organization visiting scholar
in the Tennessee basin. He returned to China advo-
cating a new mode of agricultural production
through technical socioenvironmental management
(Q. J. Ye 1982,1987,1988). In his premier work
Ecological Agriculture: The Future of Agriculture, Q. J.
Ye (1988) argued that engineering society and the
environment to balance economic and ecological
feedbacks could bring about a higher stage of devel-
opment and labor organization. Drawing on his
background in agricultural economics and a litany of
European-American industrial ecologists, Ye pro-
moted integrated management through what he
called ecological agriculture (shengtai nongye), which
entailed the modernization of agriculture through
rational technocratically engineered industrialization
comprehensively designed and spatially managed (Q. J.
Ye 1987). He argued that ecological agriculture could
be brought about through the regulation of the
populationlandcommodity cycle(renkou-tudi-
shangpin liangxingxunhuan;Q.J.Ye1987,45). He
expressed this idea through cyclical models, which
detailed positive and negative feedbacks between
population control and quality, commodity produc-
tion and flows of capital, rational land use, and eco-
logical functions (see Figure 2).
In discussing this model, Q. J. Ye (1987) claimed
that only when population quality (suzhi) and size
have stabilized will humanity be able to rationally
develop and use land to create a rational structure of
industrial production(5). This claim is directed
toward the role of scientists in socioenvironmental
management and to the peasantry, which within
Chinas reform-era discourse has come to embody a
low qualitypopulation that perpetuates inefficient
and polluting agricultural practices (Anagnost 2004;
Kipnis 2006; Schneider 2015).
Ye described this
rational management as an intensification of effi-
ciency in the use of energy, labor, capital, and tech-
nology, which will be mutually beneficial (xiaoyi)to
Figure 1. Wang Rusongs graphic of teleological progression.
Wang contended that traditional agriculture (bottom left) will
become ecological society (top right) through sustainable
development (expressed through the upward diagonal line). The
middle steps are petroleum agriculture, ecological agriculture, and
ecological industry (R. S. Wang 1999, 53).
10 Rodenbiker
ecology, economy, and society. Obtaining this level
of efficiency entails dissolving the peasantry and
instituting state-led socioenvironmental manage-
ment. Yes position as a state scientist during the
reform era contributed to the popularization of these
ideas. The underlying logics of socioenvironmental
controllability are perpetuated through the work of
ecological economists who promulgate techniques for
measuring carrying capacities.
One of the most prominent of these ecological
economists is Pan Jiahua, who received his PhD in
economics from Cambridge University and is pres-
ently professor of economics and the director of the
Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies in
the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as well as
vice president of the Chinese Society of Ecological
Economics. He advises the National Ministry of
Environmental Protection and was an author on
multiple Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change working group assessment reports. He advo-
cates for ecological urbanization and ecological agri-
culture through managing carrying capacity (2013b).
Pan (2013b) wrote, The principle of ecological civi-
lization is that we should show respect for nature
and live in accord with its laws. To conform
with nature, we need to observe the rigid constraints
of ecological capacity(159). Nature in this iteration
has rigidquantifiable properties, thus suggesting
static, unchanging features. Despite important cri-
tiques of the flaws of carrying capacity,
urbanrural planning through the measurement of
carrying capacity rose to prominence during the
2000s and became a key feature in state land
management strategies.
Moreover, Pan suggested
managing carrying capacities is a civilizational project,
thereby contributing to elite scientistsnarrations of
modernization as civilizational progress.
Echoing the environmental scientists noted ear-
lier, Pan (2013a, Pan 2013b) represented ecological
modernization as a departure from primitive, agrar-
ian, and industrial civilization. Pan (2013a) wrote,
Ecological civilization is a new development stage of
human society after primitive civilization, agri-
cultural civilization, and industrial civilization(40,
italics added). In this temporal narrative, the peas-
antry, a relic of agrarian civilization, inhabits a pre-
industrial mode of existence. Pan (2013a) asserted
this in claims that ecological civilization in the
modern age is no longer the passive accommodation
of nature [from] over 2000 years ago but harmony
between human and nature based on modern science
and technology(3738). In this quote, agrarian civ-
ilization is characterized as passive in contrast to an
active ecological civilization. This dichotomous
trope of active and passive natures reflects a cultural
othering that frames the peasantry as backward and
bolsters state-led technoscientific interventions. The
peasantry, for Pan, is outside modernity and there-
fore in need of scientific improvements to be
included and thereby transformed.
Claims that the peasantry is not capable of ratio-
nal land management are common refrains in con-
temporary discussions of ecological civilization
building. For example, in discussing grazers in the
Ningxia region, Pan suggested that no matter where
peasants go, each localitys natural resources are
inadequate to support its population; wherever these
people go, extra capacity will be needed(Pan
2013a, 160). Here Pan framed rural people as inca-
pable of rationally maintaining land and suggested
that extra capacitywill be required. In addition to
this claim being logically incompatible with neo-
Malthusian notions of carrying capacity that hold an
intrinsic limit or threshold of support for a given
ecosystem, Pan made the assumption that peasant
herding and farming practices are monolithic and
static across contexts. This rationale suggests that
rural people will act the same across localities and
can thus be accordingly modeled like any natural
feature of the region. According to this logic, wher-
ever peasants go, the carrying capacity of the region
will be violated and more capacity will be needed,
thereby causing systemic imbalance. Claims that
rural people degrade land, cause pollution, and
Figure 2. Populationlandcommodity cycle model, from Q. J.
Ye (1987). This graphic expresses positive and negative
feedbacks between (from upper left to the right) total
population, rational land use and development, ecological
functions, pollution and soil erosion, investment, commodity
production, population quality, family planning (far left), and
industrial structure (center).
Chinas Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization 11
violate carrying capacity abound. These assertions
are rarely supported by place-based scientific field
Yet, these rationales underlie the ecode-
velopmental logic that small-scale disaggregated agri-
cultural production causes ecological imbalance,
which requires rebalancing through techni-
cal management.
The logics discussed here through the work of Ye
Qianji and Pan Jiahua permeate Chinas state socio-
environmental planning practices and modernization
programs. Additionally, these logics do important
discursive work by framing the peasantry as needing
rational oversight from scientists and state planners.
Accordingly, moving toward ecological civilization
entails state-led scientific industrialization of agricul-
ture and modernization of the rural population
through urbanization. During Pans tenure, Chinas
development plans for urbanizing the peasantry
became framed as a process of ecological civilization
building. This shift was evident in the 18th
National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party,
which called for an increase in the urban population
from 50 percent to 60 percent, effectively calling for
the urbanization of 100 million rural people. Implicit
within this vision and explicit in the government
plans that promote measuring regional carrying
capacities is the position that state-led socioenviron-
mental engineering will solve environmental prob-
lems, maximize production, and bring a backward
peasantry in sync with ecological modernity.
This article opened with a quote from Xi Jinping,
who, at the Paris Climate Accord, articulated a
global vision of ecological modernization with China
at the helm. The Trump-era retreat of the United
States from key leadership roles in international
assemblies surrounding environment, development,
and climate change created a vacuum in global lead-
ership. China is filling this role. In the present
moment, ecology is central to Chinas state articula-
tion of global environmental leadership, as well as
national green modernization.
With growing protests surrounding environmental
pollution in China (Zhong and Hwang 2016), rein-
forcing the image of a strong government that will
effectively ameliorate environmental crises is a stra-
tegic facet of party-state legitimacy. In the realm of
global environmental diplomacy, scientists and
diplomats frame China as a global leader in green
development and the endeavor to build an ecologi-
cal civilization as a global project. This is evinced by
dialogues across international platforms including
the United Nations Environment Program on
Building an Ecological Civilization (Hansen, Li, and
Svarverud 2018) and the 2021 United Nations
Biodiversity Conference titled Ecological
Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life
on Earth.Ecodevelopmental logics therefore reso-
nate across global and national scales. Like all forms
of scientific knowledge production, ecology takes on
different meanings across contexts shaped through
global processes of scientific exchange.
In detailing key moments when ecology took on
developmental meanings in China, I illustrate how
ecology is a relationally situated form of knowledge
emergent from localized contexts of global engage-
ment. Detailing the contributions of key Chinese
scientists, I decenter ecology and sustainability as
singular and bounded forms of scientific knowledge
originating in the West. Instead, global dialogues
across Marxism, earth systems science, and ecological
economics produced ecodevelopmental logics central
to contemporary Chinas ecological modernization
platform. Although the tendency might be to cele-
brate such global exchanges, this article shows how
they are integral to expressions and constitutions of
state power and central in naturalizing social
inequalities. Prominent in this account were logics
regarding the role of the state and the peasantry in
socioenvironmental management. The first entailed
the transformation of Maoist theories of the peas-
antry as the vanguard of revolution into a backward
force in need of modernization. The second logic
framed the state and state scientists as the rational
planners and technicians of green modernization.
State scientists were central in making ecology
developmental. According to the logics they pro-
duced, achieving ecological balance is a civilizational
goal that can only come to fruition through state-led
scientific intervention. Ecological civilization, there-
fore, is both a future state of developmental attain-
ment and an ongoing process of state-led
improvement toward that developmental end.
According to this vision, attaining this future devel-
opmental moment requires totalizing socioenviron-
mental control. Ecological civilization building
thereby is a moral, technomanagerial, aesthetic, and
temporal narrative of progress within which rural
12 Rodenbiker
people are imagined as becoming modern urban sub-
jects and rational economic actors through state
improvements on ecology. This scientific articulation
has deep roots in Chinas history of sustainable
development. From the notion of malleable social
energies latent in populations to the systems science
notion of continuous development, scientific imagi-
naries of sustainable development play a central role
in projecting a future state of attainment wherein
scientific interventions will create an ecological soci-
ety with a steady-state economy and ecological equi-
librium. Although ecologists have argued for decades
that environmental stability and ecological equilib-
rium never exist, not even in nature (Zimmerer
1994), much rests on the power of this sustainable
development narrativenot least of which is the
legitimacy of Chinas party-state, its role in a rapidly
changing international arena of environmental poli-
tics, and the differential roles of Chinese citizens in
urban and agrarian modernization.
These ecodevelopmental logics are consequential
for the material realities of everyday life in China
and the future of ecology globally. Ecodevelopmental
logics justify state techniques of socioenvironmental
engineering, such as functional land zoning, manag-
ing ecological carrying capacity, agricultural industri-
alization, and urbanizing of the peasantryas social
group framed as antithetical to ecological civiliza-
tion. Chinas national modernization plan calls for
an increase in the urban population from 50 to 75
percent en route to becoming a fully modern ecolog-
ical civilization by 2050. In practice, many projects
of ecological modernization and ecological urbaniza-
tion bolster state control while unevenly displacing
rural people and ethnic minorities (Xun 2012; Yeh
2013; Ong 2014;J.Ye2015; Zhou 2015; Guldin
2016; Chen, Zinda, and Yeh 2017; Rodenbiker
2019). Ecological state formations materialize glob-
ally through ecodevelopmental logics that inform
international environmental policies and practices.
Ecological states materialize locally through govern-
ing entities within China that territorialize rural
land and bolster state power over resources through
projects of ecological protection (Rodenbiker 2020).
Yet, current discussions within Chinas state circles
surrounding the modernizationurbanization drive
routinely foreclose alternative development agendas
(Q. F. Zhang and Donaldson 2008; Guldin 2016;
Day and Schneider 2018), thereby materially and
discursively reproducing social inequalities. Historicizing
how ecology became developmental is a crucial step in
rethinking national socioenvironmental planning and
policies. At a global level, ecodevelopmental logics
matter as China takes increasingly prominent roles in
United Nations sustainability councils and global
environmental governance. Uncritical celebrations of
ecological civilization, particularly by Western scholars,
not only obscure the realities of ecologically justified
dispossession and uneven relations of power but also
pave the way for such logics to animate environmental
planning and policies around the worldwith poten-
tially devastating trajectories for global ecologies.
This article has been some time in the making. I
presented an early version in 2016 at the American
Association of Geographers Conference in San
Francisco, and another version in 2017 at Sichuan
Universitys School of Public Administration. In
2019, I presented portions of this article as part of
the Nordic Geographers Sustainable Geography-
Geography of Sustainability Conference at the
Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Finally, I presented material for this article in 2020
at the University of Pittsburghs Asian Studies
Center as part of the Ecological Civilization and
Chinese Studiesworkshop. I thank discussants and
participants in these events for their comments,
especially Corey Byrnes, Runqiu Liu, Janet Sturgeon,
Brooke Wilmsen, and Emily Yeh. I am grateful to
You-tien Hsing, Jake Kosek, Andrea Marston, Nancy
Peluso, and Michael Watts for constructive com-
ments on earlier versions of this article. Finally, I
thank anonymous reviewers and the managing editor
Kendra Strauss for their insightful comments.
The research and writing for this article were sup-
ported by the Cornell Atkinson Center for
Sustainability, Fulbright-Hays DDRA, Social Science
Research Council, Chiang-Ching Kuo Foundation,
Institute of International Studies, University of
California Berkeley Center for Chinese Studies, and
the Confucius China Studies Program.
1. See Odum (1959).
Chinas Environmental Sciences and Green Modernization 13
2. See Kingsland (1985) and Hutchinson (1978).
Although ecology emerged in the West as an
explicit critique of modernity, ecological sciences are
often mobilized in support of development projects.
3. For additional work on how global exchange shapes
ways of knowing, see Tagliacozzo, Siu, and Perdue
(2015) and Culp, U, and Yeh (2016).
4. See Foucault, Rabinow, and Rose (2003),
particularly, The Subject and Power(12644).
5. For an example of this kind of ethnological account,
see Morgan (1877).
6. For works on the politics of improvement, see
Magubane (2003), T. Li (2007), and Yeh (2013).
For works on reform-era roles of Chinas peasantry
see Yeh (2013), Schneider (2015), and Chen, Zinda,
and Yeh (2017).
7. Marx ([1867] 2001) is often discussed as a
Eurocentric unilinear thinker who advocated for
sociopolitical revolution through the urban
proletariat. In contrast with this reading, the work
of Anderson (2002,2016) engaged Marxs 1872
French edition of Das Kapital (as opposed to the
1867 version), the 1882 Russian edition of the
Communist Manifesto (Marx 1882), Gundrisse (Marx
[1939] 2005), journalistic writings, and unpublished
notebooks to make the case that Marx was an adroit
global thinker on varieties of human social and
historical development that include race, ethnicity,
and nationalisms. It is of particular relevance to this
article that within the 1882 Russian edition of the
Communist Manifesto Marx highlighted communal
villages of Russia as a potential source of socialist
development, which is analogous to Li
Dazhaos position.
8. See Trotsky ([1930] 2008; [1931] 2010). Trotskys
notion of permanent revolutionheld that
countriesdevelopment trajectories depended on
national class dynamics in the context of global
capitalism. This was later reinterpreted by Mao
Zedong during the Cultural Revolution as continual
internal revolution headed by red guardyouth (see
Yang 2016).
9. The translation of yuli as surplus energy noted in
this text aligns with the translation by Meisner
(1967, 65), although the term also connotes the
power, ability, or capacity for social development. In
other parts of the text when discussing nations
social transformation, Li used the term shili, which
could also be rendered as force or power.
10. See, for instance, Condorcet ([1795] 1955).
11. See D. Li (1919,1924) and Meisner
(1967, 15861).
12. For a firsthand village account of class leveling
practices, see Hinton (1997). For a historical
overview, see Moise (2013).
13. For an analysis of the different positions and schools
of thought within Chinas reform-era intelligentsia,
see Day (2013).
14. Writings on ecological civilization building began to
emerge during the mid-1980s. They have grown
exponentially since. Z. Wang (2012) enumerated
the increasing volume of writings on ecological
Marxism in China. Wang noted that during the
decade of 1991 through 2000 there were forty-five
academic peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic
of ecological Marxism, whereas from 2000 to 2010,
the number was nearly 600.
15. Western academics were writing and publishing
works that developed an ecological Marxist project
nearly simultaneous with Wangs writing. The
Western academic tradition of ecological Marxism,
however, has a distinct historical lineage and
categories of analysis from those that appeared in
Chinas early writings on ecological Marxism. For
influential works in the Western tradition see
OConnor (1988), Foster (2000), and Moore (2015).
16. Wang attributed steady-state economics to John
Stuart Mill (18061873), Adam SmithsWealth of
Nations, and other political economists. Wang
interpreted the steady state as a way of stabilizing
national economic production, such that there is a
balance between national resource extraction and
production. This contrasts with neoclassical
economistsreadings of Adam Smith who advocate
national economies as endless machines of growth.
See Arrighi (2007).
17. When earth systems scientists of the reform era
discuss energy, they primarily use nengliang, which
connotes energy in the sense of the power derived
from the utilization of a resource, a by-product of a
relational biochemical or biophysical action or
reaction, or stored potential.
18. For examples of how functional land zoning,
ecological redlining, and green building are being
implemented and with what effects, see Pow and
Neo (2015), Zhou (2015), Pow (2018), and
Rodenbiker (2019,2020).
19. Whereas aesthetic facets of early ecology in the
United States emerged in relation to Southwest
desert and riparian landscapes (Sayre 2010), in
contemporary China ecological aesthetics are
integral to environmental governance as shown
through ecocity constructions (Pow 2018), urban
brownfield restorations (Rodenbiker 2017), and
urbanrural environmental planning projects that
integrate pristinenature aesthetics with functional
land zoning.
20. For accounts regarding circular economy and
socioenvironmental modeling in other national
contexts, see Geng and Dobertsein (2008), Yuan
et al. (2008), and Su et al. (2013).
21. Ye used zhiliang and suzhi interchangeably within his
writing to express quality.During the 1980s
population quality began to appear in state
documents and elite discourses surrounding and a
new regime of value embodied in persons within a
population. Population quality expressed through
suzhi became predominant in the latter half of
the 1980s.
22. Carrying capacity has been critiqued for being
idealistic and immeasurable at all scales, for
assuming that highly dynamic environmental
qualities are static, as well as for the difficulties in
determining veracity of data across scales given
14 Rodenbiker
changing environmental conditions (Sayre 2008).
Identifying stable in-patch dynamics at any scale has
proven untenable.
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JESSE RODENBIKER is an Atkinson Postdoctoral
Fellow in Sustainability in the Department of
Natural Resources and the Environment at
Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14853. E-mail: He is concurrently a
Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of
Geography at Rutgers University. His research inter-
ests include critical environmental science and sus-
tainability studies, urban political ecology, political
economy of development, environmental justice, and
global China.
18 Rodenbiker
... Wu et al. (2022a) details how planning is adapting to shifting national political priorities such as building a "Beautiful China," a broad initiative connoting landscape aestheticization, heritage preservation, and cultural development projects, as well as fostering a "harmonious society," a discourse that emerged in the early 2000s to promote social stability amidst rising inequality. Since 2012, the beginning of the Xi Jinping era, harmonious society discourses have largely been subsumed into those aimed at "building an ecological civilization" (Rodenbiker, 2021a;Zhang and Wu, 2022). Mechanisms advanced under these national planning campaigns include green building programs (Zhou, 2015), eco-cities (Chen, 2013;Chang, 2019), and ecological protection (Rodenbiker, 2020). ...
... Urban-rural differences reflect economic disparities (Ma et al., 2018) and sociocultural politics of human value (Anagnost, 2004). Politics of value find expression within communities of environmental scientists and planners in ways that reify difference and reproduce economic disparities (Rodenbiker, 2021a;Yeh, 2013a). As such, urban-rural difference and rural injustice have been at the forefront of environmental justice scholarship in China (Balme, 2014;Johnson and Lora-Wainwright, 2018). ...
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This paper analyzes the linkages between urban waterscapes, nature aesthetics, and sustainability by delineating the re-emergence of shan-shui, translatable as ‘mountain-water,’ or ‘landscape,’ within contemporary urban China. I show how this aesthetic concept, originally emerging in third century Chinese landscape poetry, is used to reconfigure and reimagine sustainability and contemporary China’s urban landscapes. I draw on original mixed methods fieldwork, including interviews over a two-year period, digital archiving, historical texts and discourse analysis. Through these methods, I detail the emergence of shan-shui aesthetics then draw on the concept of superscription, the historical process of layering symbolic meanings, to understand the contemporary superscription of shan-shui with urban sustainability through the writings of prominent Chinese scientists and urban planning experts. Their productive work generated a new imaginary of teleological urban modernity that superscribes shan-shui with urban sustainability as the “shan-shui city.” Through two primary case studies, Tangshan Nanhu Eco-city and Meixi Lake, I show how the production of new sustainable urban waterscapes is linked with place making practices, territorial processes, and localized entrepreneurialism. Finally, I point to the limits of superscription, by highlighting the significant disconnect between the state framing of urban space and the lived experiences of urban residents, which I conceptualize as the osculation of the state. The paper, thus, intervenes in literatures regarding the historical transformations of cultural symbols, aesthetics, urban political ecology, and the political economy of place-making in China.
A central feature of China's “green” development plan has been the creation of conservation zones across the peri-urban fringes of major cities. In these conservation zones, rural land and housing are being unevenly incorporated into urban space, leading to a diverse set of experiences for dislocated villagers. In this paper, I develop a volumetric approach to analyze the spatial politics of agricultural and urban transitions in China's conservation zones. I advance theories of vertical and volumetric space, which consider relations across heights, depths, and surfaces, through attention to the temporalities and everyday experiences of volumes. My volumetric approach provides a foundation for delineating how the uneven valuation and compensation of rural land and housing shapes social differentiation, as well as how villagers navigate and experience rural-urban transitions. Furthermore, I argue that a volumetric account of three-dimensional space exposes the interconnections between agrarian and urban questions, which are usually considered discretely. The central contribution of this paper, therefore, is to reorient the agrarian and urban questions in relation to one another across horizontal, vertical, and temporal axes.
Ecological civilization (shengtai wenming ) has been written into China’s constitution as the ideological framework for the country’s environmental policies, laws and education. It is also increasingly presented not only as a response to environmental degradation in China, but as a vision for our global future. In this article, scholars from the disciplines of media science, anthropology and sinology analyse media representations of eco-civilization in order to explore which values and visions this highly profiled state project actually entails. The article argues that eco-civilization is best understood as a sociotechnical imaginary in which cultural and moral virtues constitute key components that are inseparable from the more well-known technological, judicial, and political goals. The imaginary of eco-civilization seeks to construct a sense of cultural and national continuity, and to place China at the center of the world by invoking its civilization’s more than 2000 years of traditional philosophical heritage as a part of the solution for the planet’s future. It is constructed as a new kind of Communist Party led utopia in which market economy and consumption continue to grow, and where technology and science have solved the basic problems of pollution and environmental degradation. • Download : Download high-res image (6KB) • Download : Download full-size image
Since the United States committed to withdraw from the UN Paris Agreement on climate change, international observers have increasingly asked if China can take the lead instead to raise global ambition in the context of a world leadership vacuum. Given the country's increasing economic and strategic focus on sustainable and low-carbon innovation, China might seem well placed to do so. However, much depends on the direction of governance and reform within China regarding the environment. To better understand how the government is seeking to make progress in these areas, this article explores key political narratives that have underpinned China's policies around sustainable development ( kechixu fazhan ) and innovation ( chuangxin ) within the context of broader narratives of reform. Drawing on theoretical insights from work that investigates the role of power in shaping narratives, knowledge and action around specific pathways to sustainability, this article explores the ways in which dominant policy narratives in China might drive particular forms of innovation for sustainability and potentially occlude or constrain others. In particular, we look at ecological civilization ( shengtai wenming ) as a slogan that has gradually evolved to become an official narrative and is likely to influence pathways to sustainability over the coming years.