Interview with Mallory Xinyu Zhan on the practice of green citizenship in urban China.

In this interview Mallory Xinyu Zhan discusses the findings of her recent article published in Environmental Politics: ‘Active, dutiful and pragmatic: practicing green citizenship in urban China’. We discuss green citizenship and its gender and class dynamics, and the GoZeroWaste community.

Congratulations on your recent article! Tell us – what is the most important point you would like people to take from this research?

Thank you! This article is based on extensive ethnographic work with sustainable lifestyle communities in China. I argue that the changing socio-political conditions in China give rise to a particular type of green citizenship that is active (as opposed to activist), dutiful (as opposed to rightful), and pragmatic (as opposed to radical), and at the same time, gendered and classed. Motivated by a strong sense of duty toward nature and future generations, active, dutiful and pragmatic green citizens set realistic, achievable objectives, commit to practicing sustainable consumption and voluntary environmental actions, and building green families and communities.

In the shrinking spaces for civic activism in China, these citizens acted on their sense of duty and asserted their agency when possible. However, this form of citizenship fails to challenge entrenched norms and systems, toward the expansion of rights and the empowerment for all. Through this article, I wanted to highlight the dynamics in bottom-up citizenship practices for the environment in China. By dynamics, I mean the various processes through which ordinary citizens conform or challenge norms of citizenship, through their everyday engagement in lifestyle politics.

Rather than focusing on environmental protest, you look at every day, individual practices of green citizenship. Why did you approach citizenship from this angle? 

Existing scholarship on Chinese citizenship has indeed focused more on protest events, which are more audible, visible, and extraordinary moments of citizenship struggles. These are no doubt vibrant forces of social change. However, in recent years, the re-tightening of state control over civil society, pervasive surveillance and censorship over media and the internet, and intensified repressions against activist groups stifled movements across the board. For instance, there are no native, bottom-up movements in China comparable to Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, and Fridays for Future that pressure the government to accelerate its climate actions. And many grassroots environmental groups have either dissipated or transformed into professional organizations providing technical services.

That said, a great number of Chinese people are deeply concerned about environmental issues, and they are actively engaged in different modes of activism. As people grow to be more knowledgeable of the negative environmental impacts of their consumption, many are participating through consumption-based actions or sustained lifestyle practices. We see that in emerging lifestyle movements such as vegetarianism, minimalism, “downshifting”, and “zero waste” in China.  Lifestyle movements and more traditional protest-based movements are both manifestations of citizenship. Very often, people engaged in sustainable lifestyles are driven strong sense of duty and responsibility to safeguard nature and the environment; many are also motivated by clear political grievances and ambitions. The tactics and repertoires of movement are obviously different – but not without overlap. As the space for contentious environmental movement narrows, the everyday and the mundane becomes critical site to examine citizenship.

Ecological civilization is an important concept that you explore in your article. What did this framework show you, and how does it relate to citizenship?

Over the years, ecological civilization has emerged to be a central ideological framework in China. The concept drew inspiration from ancient Chinese philosophies, such as the Confucian eco-ethics of “the harmonious unity between humanity and nature” (tianren heyi). It also brings in ideas from Marxist ecology, to challenge the Western anthropocentric tradition that allegedly promotes “industrial civilization” and capitalist expansion, which fundamentally causes the exploitation of natural resources and the climate crisis we are in today. Ecological civilization is China’s response to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. It promises prosperity and sustainable well-being to the Chinese people. In brief, ecological civilization is a foundational framework guiding China’s path toward sustainable development.

The framework of ecological civilization promotes its own version of citizenship.  In the current political rhetoric, every citizen should participate in building an ecological civilization and a “beautiful China” and they are mobilized by the state to do so. Through a variety of programs and media outlets, the state promotes “exemplary civil practitioners of the new civilization” who plant trees, sort their garbage and reduce food waste. The state has also strengthened channels of institutionalized environmental participation to enforce what’s known as “legal and orderly” participation, for instance, citizens can report environmental wrongdoings through the government service platform. Essentially, citizenship under ecological civilization emphasizes duties and obligations toward the state, actualized through government sanctioned, individualized, micro environmental actions. Did this political rhetoric resonate with eco-conscious individuals in China? Or is it challenged? This is what this article sets out to do, to understand how green citizenship is actually understood and practiced on the ground.

Tell us about the “zero waste” community that you spent time in – are they geographically bounded? Is it a class movement? A generational group? What do they practice?

The community that I studied is known as GoZeroWaste. It is a dispersed, loosely organized, virtual community of practice dedicated to zero waste and sustainable lifestyle. It started in 2016 when a ZW enthusiast began documenting her zero waste lifestyle on Chinese social media. Initially, it drew a small group of followers, mainly in Beijing. Over the years, it expanded into 22 cities, with more than 10,000 members actively engaged in both online and offline activities. Each city chapter is managed by a group of volunteers, who dedicate time and resource community building. For example, the city chapters often organize events such as secondhand swaps, DIY workshops, eco tours, to name but a few.

Like elsewhere in the world, zero waste involves a series of practices that put waste minimization at the center. More broadly, it could also be understood as a holistic post-consumerist lifestyle that proposes to cut back non-essential consumption to free up one’s resources, such as time, money, space, and energy, to focus on the more immaterial aspects of life. Zero waste practitioners tend to have strong affinity with sustainable and ethical consumption, as well as alternative consumption, through activities of reuse, upcycling, free-cycling, exchange and DIY. My experience at the community tells me that there is a strong emphasis on voluntary reduction in overall consumption level, instead of a narrow focus on green purchasing, such as buying sustainable tote bags and reusable cups. This reflects more robust vision of sustainable consumption.

Participants in the zero waste community in China are most likely well-educated women in their 20s to 40s.  A recent survey conducted by the community indicated that approximately 90% of its members are female. This overwhelming female participation could be explained by the gendered division of labor that still attributes household provisioning—where many zero-waste practices take place—as a woman’s responsibility. Zero waste is not necessarily a movement of the privileged in China. Many people I encountered are college-educated precariats who are internal migrants in the cities where they live. They have unstable jobs, rent small apartments, and profess to financial anxieties. The post-consumerist lifestyle that zero waste advocates is well-aligned with their economic situations, in addition to their environmental consciousness. The events organized by the zero-waste community also provide a space for people with limited means to obtain quality second-hand clothes and goods that they enjoy.  The movement doesn’t seem to engage the rich or the most marginalized, such as waste workers, who could also be considered enablers of the zero waste movement. How the movement can contribute to a broader cross-class alliance remains to be seen.

Finally, you reflect on gender and class in relation to citizenship throughout this article. What did this focus show in your analysis, and did your findings reflect research on gender and class from other places?

In the article, I explain that the zero waste movement manifests a particular type of active citizenship that emphasizes duties instead of rights. In this mode of citizenship, citizens’ sense of entitlement to more extensive environmental rights and aspiration for decision making power are left largely unclaimed and unfulfilled, due to current political situations. The actions are heavily concentrated on private actions at home, and volunteering and service to the community.

Women constitute the majority that engage in this form of citizenship, driven by “feminine” virtues and maternal duties of care. Despite not explicitly seeking to dismantle the patriarchy, women within the zero waste movement reinforced their societal roles through actions in the home and community. Their active involvement has not been translated into actual decision-making power in local environmental affairs, which remains firmly located in public offices dominated by men. I must also point out that the construction of ecological civilization as a whole, grounded in the organization of family and community as incubators for an active future citizenry, depends on the virtues and duties of diligent women who disproportionately take on the responsibility of social reproduction, while denied full citizenship themselves. Scholars have proposed a vision of “feminist ecological citizenship” in which women are empowered to reclaim their position in the public sphere of green politics. But the state’s return to conservatism and repressions against feminist groups under the current administration make the fight for emancipation increasingly challenging.

I also observed that participants from migrant and non-propertied classes encounter additional and compounded obstacles in trying to claim their citizenship. At the outset, they are usually excluded from activities of the “Homeowner Association”, a form of citizen collective that unites the power of individual homeowners, which has been at the forefront of middle-class environmental activism in China. In addition, not being born and raised in the city, and entering as a newcomer in a residential compound meant weaker social capital. Several participants shared experiences of being brushed aside when trying to engage with street-level bureaucrats in sustainability initiatives due to lack of interest or support from more networked citizens. These experiences exacerbated feelings of powerlessness: they felt that they had neither the resources, power, nor the “eligibility” to start a community environmental initiative.

China’s Hukou system, distinguishing between rural-to-urban and native-to-migrant, not only affects social rights such as education, health and employment but also influences the dynamics of green citizenship. The lack of economic, cultural and social capital, as well as other resources such as time, often serves as a barrier preventing individuals from “deeper” citizenship engagement that they aspire to. My observation shows that, when considering consumption as a site for ecological citizenship, it is crucial not to treat the privileged as the primary political agents, to the neglect of those in the margins.

Bio: Mallory Xinyu ZHAN is a postdoctoral researcher at Sciences Po Paris, affiliated with the Center for the Sociology of Organizations (CSO) and the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policies (LIEPP). Mallory’s expertise lies at the intersection of the sociology of consumption and environmental politics, with a focus on social equity and environmental justice. Currently, she leads two projects investigating grassroots initiatives and policies promoting sustainable consumption in China and the Global South at Sciences Po. Mallory holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Sustainable Development from the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

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