Toxic Politics: China's Environmental Health Crisis and its Challenge to the Chinese State, Yanzhong Huang

Reviewed by Yifei Li


From narratives of “airpocalypse” to proclamations of “ecological civilization,” China's handling of the environmental crisis has been the subject of much debate among scholars and observers alike. In this recent addition to the literature, titled Toxic Politics, Yanzhong Huang draws from multidisciplinary scholarly sources, popular media, government documents, and a rich repertoire of personal anecdotes. The product is a highly readable analysis of the profound implications of the environmental crisis for China's population health, social stability, authoritarian bureaucracy, and even geopolitical positioning.

Bookended by an introduction and a short conclusion, the monograph has two parts. Part I is a primer on the multifaceted impacts of environmental degradation in China. Huang provides a comprehensive overview of China's environmental challenges, touching on a discrete range of important problems, from cancer villages to environmental nationalism. As such, Part I has great appeal for general readers and students interested in China and the environment.

Part II focuses more specifically on China's environmental politics. The three chapters in this part offer, respectively, an essential introduction to the history of environmental governance in contemporary China, a rich overview of the well-documented problem of the policy-implementation gap, and a painfully honest discussion of the negative side effects of China's numerous crash campaigns for the environment. Together, the chapters in Part II recognize the success of China's environmental reforms in past decades, especially noting some of the recent changes under the Xi Jinping presidency. However, Huang casts doubt on the long-term viability of tackling environmental issues through top-down campaigns and mobilizations.

In the conclusion, Huang characterizes China's environmental governance apparatus as “remarkably resilient but fundamentally flawed” (p. 192), even suggesting that “the environmental crisis could be the Achilles heel of modern China” (p. 193).

The book places its empirical focus on the areas of air, water, and soil pollution, with some passing references to other policy areas such as energy. This narrow focus enables Huang to delve deep into each of the three areas, but it also leaves the reader wanting a broader empirical scope. Other issues that are relevant to the environment-health nexus—biodiversity, agricultural sustainability, food safety, and climate resilience, to name a few—are conspicuously missing. While it may be argued that air, water, and soil contamination are the most pressing concerns facing China, there is no denying that the country's overall environmental governance portfolio reaches far beyond these three areas.

Moreover, a common experience in this field is that any book risks becoming outdated as soon as it is published. This is less a reflection of the author's abilities, and more a function of the rapidly changing circumstances surrounding China and the environment. Huang manages to make some connections to COVID-19 toward the very end of the book, which is a welcome extension to the overall argument. Yet some other events, such as China's near monopoly on the global rare-earth elements trade (pp. 74–75) and its official position at United Nations climate change conferences (p. 78), have seen major developments in recent years. It would have been useful to understand the extent to which these shifts confirm or challenge Huang's overall thesis.

Nonetheless, these minor notes aside, Toxic Politics is one of the most readable texts on China and the environment. Readers in search of a well-written book on this topic need look no further.

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