Published date01 September 2016
Date01 September 2016
doi : 10. 1111/p adm .12263
In recent years, governing environmental conicts concerning the planning, construction, and oper-
ation of urban facilities has increasingly become a challenge for Chinese local governments. Chinese
governments seek adequate responses to deal with these conicts, for instance by ignoring criticism
and sticking to initial decisions, by suppressing protests, or by compromising. In this article, by
analysing 10 cases of conict in China using crisp-set qualitative comparative analysis (csQCA), we
aim to investigate which combinations of diverse conditions lead to changes in local governments’
decisions. Four contextualized paths to explain both the presence and the absence of these changes
are identied. These ndings increase our understanding of the mechanisms underlying the gov-
ernance of environmental conicts in China and may inform Chinese governments and non-state
actors who are seeking ways to deal adequately with them.
China has made great economic progress in the past 30 years. However, one of the
by-products of its economic achievements is becoming ever more apparent: an increasing
number of environmental conicts. It is reported that, since 1997, environmental con-
icts in China have increased by an average of 25 per cent annually (Hou and Zhang
2009). The environmental conicts studied in this article concern disputes among diverse
actors – such as government ofcials, local residents, experts, environmental NGOs, and
activists – over the planning, construction, and operation of urban industrial facilities that
have potentially negative environmental implications. These conicts are characterized
by the mobilization of opposition to these facilities, resulting in public protests that
sometimes involve the use of violence.
These types of conicts are also found in Western democracies over facilities like dams,
nuclear power plants, airports, waste disposal facilities, and chemical plants (Kraft and
Clary 1991; Wolsink 1994). Various international scholars on environmental conict reso-
lution and governance (Amy 1987; Glasbergen 1995; Pierre and Peters 2000; Van Bueren
et al. 2003) have discussed how environmental conicts should be governed. Their nd-
ings suggest that governments should resolve environmental conicts by negotiation and
consensus building, looking for a win-win solution that does justice to the various interests
involved, thus transforming environmental conicts from zero-sum into zero-plus games
(Li et al. 2015).
China can be characterized as a fragmented authoritarian country. Laws and policies
are drafted primarily in Beijing, but local governments are the main implementers,
enjoying high discretion to govern local affairs (O’Brien and Li 2006). It is, therefore,
relevant to focus our attention on Chinese local governments, exploring how they deal
with environmental conicts that fall within their jurisdictions: do they stick to their
initial plans or are they prepared to compromise, taking into account the considerations
YanweiLi and Joop Koppenjan are at the Department of Public Administration, Erasmus University of Rotterdam, The
Netherlands. Stefan Verweijwas at the Department of Political Science, University of Bamberg, Germany; he is now at
the Department of Planning, University of Groningen, The Netherlands.
Public Administration Vol.94, No. 3, 2016 (806–822)
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
of protesters? And more specically: what conditions inuence the occurrence of either
of these responses? In this contribution, we therefore examine the question: under what
conditions do Chinese local governments change their initial decisions regarding the
construction and operation of urban industrial facilities during environmental conicts?
To this purpose, 10 cases of environmental conicts regarding Chinese urban projects
are analysed with crisp-set qualitative comparative analysis (csQCA) (Ragin 1987). The
use of csQCA enables us to identify under what (combinations of) conditions local
governments may change or not change their decisions about the industrial projects
under debate.
The structure of the article is as follows. First, the conceptual framework is presented. In
the following section, the csQCA method is briey introduced. The empirical information
about the cases and data calibration is then elaborated. The analysis and results are pre-
sented in the subsequent section. The nal section concludes and discusses the ndings.
In this section, two main issues are discussed: the denition of changes in government
decisions and the explanation of governments’ decisions in governing environmental
Dening changes in government decisions in environmental conicts
Various scholars have studied how Chinese government ofcials, and more specically
Chinese local governments, deal with social conicts, including conicts over environ-
mental issues (Li and O’Brien 1996; O’Brien and Li 2006; Shi and Cai 2006; Cai 2008a,
2008b). Some of these studies have shown that the Chinese government is learning to
shape, and to respond to, complex problems. It is moving away from the traditional
authoritarian way of controlling society and towards a more sophisticated approach.
This newly accepted, explanatory model of governance in China is coined responsive
authoritarianism, implying that the Chinese state is responsive to the demands of citizens
but maintains social control (Van Rooij et al. 2016). The Chinese government is increas-
ingly adjusting its strategies depending on the situation at hand. Cai (2010) found that
local governments in China adopt four different responses to cope with social conicts:
ignoring, repressing, compromising with discipline (meeting some of the demands of
citizens and punishing some citizens), and compromising by meeting all the demands
of citizens. The former two responses imply that local governments stick to their initial
decisions, whereas with the latter two they change them through either small or radical
In this article, we seek to discover what government responses to environmental
protest can be found – in terms of changing the initial decision regarding the realiza-
tion or operation of a facility by making compromises, or not – and we also seek to
explain these responses. During environmental conicts, local governments are con-
fronted with contradictory pressures that compel them to choose between economic
interests (realizing or maintaining the facilities) and environmental and social val-
ues (reducing negative environmental impacts; keeping social order) (Mertha 2009;
Deng and Yang 2013; Lang and Xu 2013). Various conditions could contribute to a
specic balance between these contradictory pressures or a change in this balance,
making Chinese governments decide to either stick to their original decisions and
let economic interests prevail, or to make compromises and seek to balance these
Public Administration Vol.94, No. 3, 2016 (806–822)
© 2016 John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

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