The Politics of Environmental Protest in China and Malaysia


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date30 Jun 2017


Under conditions of authoritarian rule, when does environmental protest succeed (with the state making concessions) and when does it fail (with the state being unresponsive or resorting to repression)? What explains the specific protest strategies being utilised? Is the type of authoritarian regime pivotal in answering those questions? To see, I use a “most different cases” methodology, featuring a paired comparison of China, a single-party system, and Malaysia, a single-party dominant system. Further, these dissimilar country cases produce similar outcomes, with each displaying mixed records of protest success and failure. To find the cause, I peer beneath authoritarian regime types to probe the calculus made by state officials over how to respond to environmental protest. This marks a shift in the study of protest, with most analysts assigning causal weight to social forces, movements, and protest strategies. I demonstrate that officials in both China and Malaysia, when confronted by environmental protest, make calculations about the sunk financial costs of their projects and the political costs of accommodative or repressive responses. Additionally, in order to better assess the differences in national contexts and the similarities in calculations over costs, I use a framework of “institutional logics” that involves state capacity, accountability requirements, and ideological constraints. Thus, in accordance with the incentives that institutional logics produce, state officials respond to environmental protest either with concessions or repression. Similarly, protesters act on these institutional logics, as they attempt to escalate the political costs of not meeting their demands. The cases that I examine took place primarily during the relatively liberal political periods in China and Malaysia between 2003 and 2013. They include Chinese protests against petrochemical projects in Chengdu and Xiamen, and Malaysian campaigns against the Broga waste incinerator and the Gebeng rare earth plant.