Monitory Democracy and Ecological Civilization in the People’s Republic of China

TragardhCivilJames Miller. 2013. “Monitory Democracy and Ecological Civilization in the People’s Republic of China.” Pp. 137-148 in Civil Society in the Age of Monitory Democracy edited by Lars Trägårdh, Nina Witoszek and Bron Taylor. Oxford: Berghahn Books.


In what sense can religious values and institutions in China be seen as elements of civil society that have the function of challenging and monitoring the interests, values and actions of the state? To answer this question, this essay considers both the ways in which religious issues have played a small role in containing—rather than enhancing—the ideological authority of the current Chinese state and whether they may be regarded as functioning in a way similar to Keane’s concept of monitory democracy. The first issue focuses on the role that Daoist values play in promoting awareness of environmental issues in ways that have supported local efforts to resist centrally-imposed economic agendas. This leads to a broader discussion of religious values, both national and transnational, and their ability to offer sustainable alternatives to the dominant ideology of state capitalism.

Monitory Democracy and Environmental Policy

John Keane’s concept of monitory democracy is particularly salient as regards the relationship between civil society and ecological sustainability in China. China’s unique political structure allows for a measure of indirect representative democracy, but this is always circumscribed by the political direction imposed upon the state by the Communist Party. In China’s case, the formal measures that permit democratic representation may thus be less significant than the ways in which China’s emerging civil society attempts to slow down the pace of environmental engineering and locally resist the imposition of central policies and plans.

There are valid historical reasons for thinking that these effects of monitory democracy are particularly important as regards environmental issues in China. In Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, Judith Shapiro (2004) amply demonstrates how “utopian urgency” and “dogmatic formalism” contributed to a series of policy disasters regarding the natural environment in China in the twentieth century. Shapiro’s explanation for these mistakes lies, intriguingly, in the realm of values. While she acknowledges the difficulty of relating cultural values to policy decisions, she nonetheless articulates her basic thesis as “how Maoist values came to dominate and govern the human-nature relationship” (2004: 11).

In her analysis of the Great Leap Forward, for instance, Shapiro explains how the Maoist rhetoric of “compressed time” constituted the core value of this campaign to overtake the West in terms of industrial development (70). She writes,

Its defining characteristic was speed: urgency in reorganizing society, urgency in catching up with Britain in industry, urgency in raising agricultural yields, urgency in building water conservancy projects, urgency in ridding China of pests, and so on. (71)

Political disputes leading up to the Great Leap Forward centered not on the basic goal of industrialization, but on the question of how fast the goal could be achieved. When the Maoist policy of “opposing opposing-rushing-ahead” won out and the Great Leap Forward was formally announced, the notion that there might be limits to the rate of development was considered heresy. Two consequences for the natural environment were evident. The first was that any attempt to reduce expectations as to what could be wrested from nature was regarded as ideologically suspicious. When, in the summer of 1958, Zeng Jia, a vice-Party secretary in Sichuan, objected to unreasonable expectations regarding grain production, he was admonished: “The Communist Party has made it possible for a field to produce 10,000 jin. If you do not believe it, where has your Party spirit gone?” (Shapiro 2004: 79). To suggest that nature might impose limits on the will of the Chinese people was to commit an ideological crime of the highest order. As the Great Leap Forward got underway, the masses were mobilized to set up backyard steel furnaces to provide the massive amounts of steel required for China’s industrialization. The consequence was massive deforestation as trees were cut down to provide firewood for this failed experiment.

During the Great Leap Forward, the slogan “Man must conquer nature” made it clear that nature was the enemy. Mao’s extreme humanism had no place for any notion of balance between humans and the natural world, nor could it conceive of an ecological understanding in which the flourishing of human life could be seen as dependent upon the flourishing of a range of ecosystems. Inflated expectations regarding grain production and massive deforestation to support steel-making had dire consequences for the health of Chinese people and the Chinese environment. It is estimated that the tremendous famine that ensued from these policies led to the deaths of 35-50 million people between 1959 and 1961.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Mao developed another disastrous strategy, which Shapiro terms “dogmatic formalism.” The case here revolves around Mao’s slogan “Learn from Dazhai.” In 1963, the Dazhai brigade of the Dazhai people’s commune in Shanxi province, overcame a natural disaster through a policy of extreme self-reliance. While this policy was clearly rooted in the earlier ideology of human voluntarism, this policy was taken in a new direction, as it was “applied mechanistically in scenarios where it could not possibly succeed because it was inappropriate for local conditions” (Shapiro 2004: 98). In particular, Shapiro documents how one specific environmental policy from Dazhai, namely, terracing hillsides to create arable land, was reproduced across China in environments for which it was not suited: “inappropriate terracing on steep slopes and areas with thin topsoils brought deforestation, erosion, and sedimentation, while encroachments on lakes and rivers led to ecosystem imbalance, microclimate changes, and increased flooding” (Shapiro 2004: 98).

In her conclusion, Shapiro briefly compares China’s efforts to conquer nature with similar campaigns in socialist Cuba and the former USSR (201). Although she argues that the uniqueness of China’s situation makes it difficult to make generalizable conclusions regarding politics and the environment, she does highlight [2] two lessons that can be learned from China’s disastrous experiments in the Maoist era. A higher level of democratic participation would have made it easier to resist the urgency of Mao’s utopian fantasies regarding the rate of industrial development. At the same time, a system of democratic representation would have enabled local areas to have greater power over their own environments and this might have mitigated the effects of imposing the Dazhai model uniformly across China’s varied topography.

These lessons are relevant for considering the ways that monitory democracy and the development of civil society in China can play a positive role in the transition to ecological sustainability as a core value of Chinese policymaking. In particular, is it possible to see how monitory activities play a role, whether positive or negative, in simply slowing down the implementation of policies? Secondly, can monitory democracy be seen in the ways that local regions resist the efforts of the state to impose its central vision upon the breadth of China’s geography? Although China has only limited channels for formal democratic representation, the rise of environmental NGOs and specific environmental protests during the past thirty years of economic reform may go some way to indicate that a form of monitory democracy is functioning in contemporary China. There are, however, four questions to be asked. One, does the sporadic scrutiny of and local protests against China’s emergent economic plans have any substantial effect on environmental policies? Two, does this ultimately benefit China’s environmental sustainability? Three, how are various non-state actors able to contribute to a higher-order debate about the basic values that underlie China’s quest for economic development? And four, are environmental or other movements able to substantially engage with a broad range of publics in questioning the fundamental direction that China’s development is taking?

In order to answer these questions, I would like to look at the case of Dujiangyan—a UNESCO world heritage site near Chengdu, Sichuan province—where a grassroots campaign succeeded in reversing governmental plans to build a hydropower dam.

Dujiangyan has good claim to be regarded as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Constructed between 267 and 256 BCE, Dujiangyan is an irrigation system that regulates the flow of the Min river during the spring floods, provides water for 50 cities, and irrigates 672,000 hectares of farmland. Remarkably, it is still in use today largely unchanged from its original design. It is regarded as a unique icon of Chinese cultural heritage not simply because it is an engineering marvel, but also because it concretely symbolizes an authentically Chinese philosophy of harmony between human beings and their natural environments. Li Bin, the project’s architect, made use of a natural feature in the topography of the Min river to create a weir and irrigation channel that function together to divert floodwater in a controlled way throughout the Sichuan basin. In this way flooding is not only prevented, but rather channelled into an elaborate system of irrigation canals that enabled Sichuan to become a rich and fertile agricultural land. To this day Li Bin is memorialized in a Daoist temple built on the site. In 2000, Dujiangyan, together with the neighbouring Daoist temple complex on Mt. Qingcheng, received designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Plans to dam the Min river date back to the period of Sino-Soviet co-operation of the 1950s. A dam was partially built in 1958, but construction stopped in 1961. The unfinished structure is still visible to this day about half a kilometre from the Dujiangyan site. In 2001, however, engineers began construction of a massive hydropower dam at Zipingpu, some seven kilometres upstream from Dujiangyan. In contrast to the subtle and elegant engineering of Dujiangyan, Zipingpu is a 156 metre-high dam, the highest of a series of cascading dams designed to provide irrigation water, flood control and hydropower. The dam was severely damaged during the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, but a complete breach was thankfully avoided.

As Mertha (2011) reports, the construction of Zipingpu led to a series of environmental protests based at Dujiangyan that were successful in reversing the central government’s decision to build a smaller dam at Yangliuhu close to Dujiangyan. In 2003, opposition to Yangliuhu crystallized around the cultural argument that this new dam would irreversibly damage Dujiangyan’s status as a key treasure of China’s heritage. As one Dujiangyan official put it, “Should we sacrifice the heritage of the people and the world to the interests of some [political] departments?” (Mertha 2011: 102).

It is worth considering this case in comparison to the failed attempt by many of China’s leading intellectuals to oppose the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Why did opposition to that project fail, and why was the Dujiangyan protest successful? One answer, provided in Mertha’s analysis, is that rather than directly oppose the plans of the central government, local organizations made their views known to a broad circle of media organizations, thus espousing an indirect approach, rather than formal representations (Mertha 2010: 106). In this regard, the Dujiangyan case lends some support to Keane’s theory of monitory democracy: that the scrutinizing function of the media is just as important for the democracy as a formal process of representation. As Premier Wen Jiabao declared in 2005, “for a project which has aroused such public concern, we need to devote more time and make assessments based on scientific considerations” (Mertha 2010: 108).

A second reason for the success at Dujiangyan, however, is the broad set of cultural and even philosophical issues that were at stake. Not only was Dujiangyan widely regarded as a cultural heritage work as significant as the Great Wall, Dujiangyan also signified the concrete expression of Daoist philosophy. It thus embodied a uniquely Chinese vision of human relations with the natural world, a vision proudly claimed by Sichuan local authorities. A senior government official of Dujiangyan city explained to me that just as Daoist philosophy came to be expressed spiritually in the religion that emerged around Qingcheng shan (2nd century C.E.), the same philosophy was also expressed materially in the Dujiangyan irrigation system (pers. comm. 2004). That is to say, a significant local reason to oppose the development at Yangliuhu was its connection to the values and heritage of Daoist philosophy.

At the heart of this philosophy lies the concept of wuwei variously translated as “non-action”, “non-aggressive action” or “effortless action” and which signifies a uniquely Daoist method of praxis in which the maximum effect is achieved by taking advantage as much as possible of the natural power inherent in things, rather than imposing one’s will directly upon them. Dujiangyan is regarded as a model of “effortless action” because rather than damming the river completely, the site employs a weir and irrigation system to channel and regulate the water’s natural power.

It is hard to underestimate the cultural significance of this metaphor within China. Not only does the vision of flood control go to the heart of China’s origin myths—see, for example, the so-called “hydraulic state thesis” of Wittfogel (1957)—the concept of water-flow is a key metaphor of Chinese philosophy (Allan 1997). In Daoism, water is a frequent image for the Dao itself or for virtuous behaviour: “Best to be like water, which benefits the ten thousand things and does not contend. It pools where humans disdain to dwell, close to the Tao” (Daode jing ch. 8; trans. Addis and Lombardo 1993). In Chinese popular culture, water features are key elements of fengshui, and are taken into consideration particularly in deciding upon the locations of tombs. In aesthetics, the sound of water flowing was deemed to be highly desirable (Schafer 1962: 292). In Chinese medical anthropology, moreover, human bodies are envisioned as porous beings in which fluids circulate providing health and long life (Miller 2006). To dam water is to obstruct the natural flow of things, and in the holistic systems approach of Chinese culture, the blockage of energy is a principal cause of disease and death.

The Dujiangyan case thus not only invokes analysis in terms of how local actors mobilized media channels to resist the imposition of central power, it also goes to the heart of what values underpin China’s quest for modernization and development. Monitory democracy, such as it is in the People’s Republic of China, is not only relevant for the way that it scrutinizes state power, but also for the way that it challenges the fundamental values upon which that power is based.

Civil Society and Alternative Religious Values

This “monitory” function is perhaps more relevant in China than in other states where the fundamental values of the state seem relatively well established by popular consensus. The first reason for this is that China’s revolutionary history over the past century and more has produced a profound instability of the core values among its people. The massive migration of over one hundred million people from the countryside to the city is one of the great transformations of human-nature relationships in world history. A second remarkable story is the rapid explosion of Christian faith and Buddhist practice throughout the mainland. The net result of these profound social, cultural and environmental shifts has been to occasion a public dialogue regarding the fundamental values that underlie China’s modernization. Scrutiny, therefore, is one reason for the success of Dujiangyan: it caused the central government to rethink its exercise of power in this particular matter. But scrutiny also touched on deeper notions of Chinese identity, cultural heritage, and spiritual value.

Another example of how the process of scrutinizing state power raises fundamental questions of value can be seen in the public debate in 2005 over the concept of “revering nature” (jingwei ziran). He Zuoxiu (1927-), a noted theoretical physicist closely allied to the Communist Party, sparked this debate when he proposed the notion that “revering nature” was a superstitious, anti-science concept that would not help China to deal with its environmental problems. He wrote (2005: 20):

I want to challenge the contention that people ought to respect and hold nature in awe, advanced by one professor. He asserts that mankind should not use science and technology to transform nature, but maintain an attitude of respect and awe. Such an attitude is “anti-science”, especially when we are confronting natural disasters like the tsunami or epidemic outbreaks. I hold the opposite view. We human beings should try our best to prevent and reduce losses incurred in natural disasters. Reverence and awe make no sense.

In his essay, he directly challenged the notion of respect and awe for nature as being “anti-science”, and argued that natural disasters such as tsunamis or epidemics should not be held in “awe” at all. Rather, the task for human beings is to prevent the natural world from wreaking havoc on human livelihood.

In response, Liang Congjie (1932-2010), the head of Friends of Nature, China’s leading environmental non-governmental organization, criticized He Zuoxiu’s humanistic, anthropocentric values, by invoking the value of nature in China’s cultural heritage. He wrote: “Numerous Chinese classical works have shown that we have always placed great value on nature, far more than just being a tool” (2005: 14). Similarly, Pan Yue, vice-minister of the State Environmental Protection Agency, has also extolled traditional Chinese ideals and values in regards to the natural environment. Although he warns (2007: 31) that “when we talk about the revival of the Chinese civilization, we do not mean to mechanically restore the traditional natural economy and cultural traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism and Legalism,” he nonetheless sees the development of an “ecological civilization” as something that integrates traditional Chinese values into a new cultural whole:

The intrinsic spirit of traditional Chinese culture and the environmental culture gathering momentum in the contemporary world are strikingly compatible. It is well known that traditional Chinese culture has always pursued harmony between man and nature, presumed morals to follow nature, abided by the laws of nature, aspired to the unity of man and nature, embraced the idea of equality among all individuals, and highlighted the security of lives and the continuity of civilization. Based on this spirit, traditional Chinese philosophies, religions, literature, art … all demonstrate harmonious relations between man and nature, profound and far-sighted ecological civilization, and harmonious aesthetics of heaven, earth and humanity. If we make a comprehensive survey of the world, both ancient and modern, we may observe that in the past several thousand years, there have been many ancient civilizations with prosperous days and golden ages; but through the destruction of nature, these came to an end. The Chinese nation is the only exception, preserved integrally and unbroken, with the same roots, race, language and culture. (2007: 30-31)

Although Pan Yue is writing as a government leader, it is easy to see that his language has important consequences for the emergence of a civil society in China that is explicitly construed around a distinctively Chinese understanding of what “civil” means. Far from wholeheartedly establishing “the environment” as a global issue to be solved by international consensus, the rise of environmentalist discourse in China has opened the door to the possibility of framing environmental issues in terms of an emergent nationalist rhetoric formed around “traditional Chinese values.” This possibility lends weight to the notion articulated by Witoszek in this volume that the emergence of civil society may also be linked with an retribalization of civil identities forged, in this case, around the values, ideals, and history of the Han people.

The case of Dujiangyan is just as instructive here as the media debate between Liang and He, or the arguments of Pan Yue. In the context of Dujiangyan, the public outcry regarding the possible negative effects of building dams was similarly couched in a nationalist language. Arguments for the preservation of Dujiangyan were not explicitly made in terms of the UNESCO world heritage designation, even though that may have been an important factor in the final decision. Rather, the arguments centered chiefly on Dujiangyan’s status as a unique symbol of Chinese heritage whose meaning could not, ultimately, be separated from the uniquely Chinese philosophy and religion of Daoism. Indeed, this powerful nexus of national identity, spiritual value and ecological relevance has not been lost on the Chinese Daoist Association, which has publicly allied itself with the issue of environmentalism (see Miller 2013).

The role that may be played by religious cultures, including Confucianism, in any emergent Chinese civil society is not to be discounted, whether in terms of offering alternative aspirations (the question of ultimate values) or alternative identities (the question of tribalization). The attention paid to religious and ethnic issues by the Chinese state may indeed constitute evidence for their relevance in this matter. It is not simply that the state is opposed to the values of Daoism, Buddhism or Christianity for purely idealistic reasons, but rather because it recognizes the real alternatives they pose to its own vision of civil belonging. This antagonism between the state and religious organizations goes back to the early twentieth century when nationalist reformers, both Republican and Communist, sought to establish the state as the sole object of Chinese people’s devotion. Indeed, Prasenjit Duara (1991) has argued that the formation of the modern Chinese state in the early twentieth century was based in part on its ability to supplant local religious associations as networks of civil society, thereby replacing the patchwork of local affiliations with one focussed on a single nation state. As local religious associations and the veneration of local gods were attacked under the new ideological category of “superstition” (mixin), at the same time, national religious organizations were established and national gods (those venerated more or less uniformly throughout China) brought under the umbrella of the state. (This policy has been reanimated in recent years in the exaltation of Confucius as a non-theistic spiritual icon of the Chinese people.)

The relationship between the State and religious organizations can thus be understood chiefly in terms of a “geography of power” in which the emergent nation state sought to exert its authority over the whole area of China, bringing all the various local factions, authorities and associations under a single system of guidance and authority. This model of spatial authority was explicitly restrained with the reforms that began in 1978-79, in which religion was once again permitted to function, but only in specifically designated spaces. The fact that street evangelism or other forms of public religious activity are generally prohibited, demonstrates the state’s geographic concern that public space be purely secular space. However, inasmuch as religious activities do take place in authorized locations, they constitute a limited but tolerated alternative to the values and ideology of the Communist Party and its leadership of the nation.

In what sense, then, can such activities be said to constitute a form of emergent civil society that in some way monitors or challenges the functioning of the state? The fact that such organizations are restrained from physically encroaching upon China’s purely secular public space might suggest that they have no real monitory power. But this would make the mistake of assuming a consistency between public and private discourse (Aijmer and Ho 2000: 39). As Tam Wai Lun (2006: 80) notes, “People display agnosticism or anti-religious stances in public as a strategy to avoid accusations of traditionalism and feudalism, and their public stance therefore cannot be taken at face value.” The discrepancy between public expression and private values means that any discussion of civil society in China must inevitably be more complex than what can be publicly gauged, and this makes it hard to calculate the effects of the rise of religious activity in China from conventional social science perspectives. Tam (2006: 80) goes on to note that the resurgence of religious activity in China “signals a search for alternatives or even a vague resistance to communist ideals,” but it is naturally difficult to ascertain precisely what the consequences of such “vague resistance” might be.

Anecdotal evidence can be found in the conflict between religious and secular authorities over the public meaning of sacred sites. On a recent field visit to the Daoist sacred mountain, Mt. Mao, in Jiangsu province, evidence of such conflict over fundamental values could be found in the signs that interpreted former sacred sites to the visitor in resolutely secular terms (see Miller, forthcoming). Conversely, signs on Mt. Qingcheng, the Daoist mountain jointly inscribed with the Dujiangyan irrigation system on the UNESCO world heritage list, proudly proclaim the beautifully preserved natural environment as a function of the environmental consciousness of Daoists in former ages. In both these cases, secular and religious authorities are vying to lay claim to the aspirational value and ultimate significance of China’s iconic physical spaces.

Similar evidence is related by Ian Johnson (2010) in his report of a Daoist ceremony to consecrate a temple to the Jade Emperor on Mt. Yi. In this case, the government officials, who viewed the religious dedication as a necessary but unwelcome element of their economic plan to boost tourism in the area, were obliged to compromise with the Daoist nun who insisted on a full four-hour ceremony. At the same time the public was captivated by the intensity of her religious practice, which contrasted with the perfunctory performance of the officials, for whom the dedication ceremony was simply the culmination of their economic plan to boost local tourism. In this case, the performance by a respected ritual master stood not simply as an arcane curiosity but as an authentic religious insistence on a set of values and longings that did not cohere with the narrow rational calculus of state capitalism. It is hard to imagine such a set of complex cultural and political interactions taking place in a European liberal democracy where the engagement of religion and the state is less frequently fraught with ideological subtexts. In China, however, the unusual attention and significance given to religion by the state has the ironic function of endowing religious actors with the function of publicly challenging the values and ideals of the state itself, however much they may not wish to do so. The ideological monotheism of China’s political system has the consequence that the mere performance of religious practices inherently challenges the values and goals of the state. It is doubtful whether religious actors would deliberately seek such ideological conflict with the state, but this unnecessary conflict is is, of course, exploited by foreign governments who highlight China’s religious policies as a means to exert leverage over the country in the international arena.

Finally, it is important to consider the ways in which religions have, for thousands of years, functioned as agents of globalization and transnational civil exchange. Operating both within and beyond the structures of military conflict, economic transaction and cultural exchange, religious beliefs and practices continue to exert influence as non-government actors on the Chinese scene. Particularly salient in this regard are Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, all of which are profoundly implicated in the basic question of the Chinese state’s ability to maintain sovereignty over its geographic borders. Whether it is the Muslims in Xinjiang, Buddhists in Tibet, or Roman Catholics throughout China, these transnational religious movements are clearly seen by the state as inhibiting its ability to govern its own people. Religious movements act as a boundary, and thus a zone of conflict, between the individual religious practitioner and the apparatus of the state. The conflict between the Vatican and Beijing over who has the authority to appoint Roman Catholic Bishops, or the conflict between Dharamsala and Beijing over what procedures will be used to identify the next Dalai Lama, are in both cases seen by Beijing as a conflict over state sovereignty. They reflect, albeit on a much grander, geo-political level, the same issues that Johnson highlights in the story regarding the dedication ceremony to the Jade Emperor: whose values have authoritative meaning in this specific space?

This issue is of profound significance—not simply in terms of the centuries-old dream of the Han people to once again have the dominant, even the only, voice within the geographic space known as the Middle Kingdom. It is also significant in terms of the issue of ecological sustainability. If China’s environment is understood not simply as a blank space upon which competing secular and religious interests vie for authoritative dominance, but as an active participant in the complex ecology of interests in which 1.3 billion humans live, then there is a greater chance that the “ecological civilization” much vaunted by China’s Communist Party will become a reality. From this perspective, the question of democracy is not simply about which group’s voice will be heard the loudest, but about how to incorporate the interests of all the factors that constitute China’s complex and precarious ecology.

Works Cited

Addis, Stephen and Stanley Lombardo, trans. 1993. Tao Te Ching. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishers

Johnson, Ian. 2010. “The Rise of the Tao.” The New York Times Magazine. November 7, 2011. Accessed April 10, 2010. Internet:

Duara, Prasenjit. 1991. “Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Modernity: The Campaigns against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Century Chinaand campaings against popular religion.” Journal of Asian Studies 50.1: 67-83.

Mertha, Andrew C. 2011. China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Miller, James. 2013. “Is Green the New Red? The Role of Religion in Creating a Sustainable China.” Journal of Nature and Culture 8.3.

Miller, James. 2006. “Daoism and Nature.” Pp. 220-235 in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology edited by Roger S. Gottlieb. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pan Yue. 2007. Thoughts on Environmental Issues. Beijing: China Environmental Culture Promotion Association.

Schafer, Edward H. 1962. “The Conservation of Nature under the T’ang Dynasty.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 5.3: 279-308.

Shapiro, Judith. 2004. Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tam Wai Lun. 2006. “Local Religion in Contemporary China.” Pp. 85-99 in Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies edited by James Miller. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.