Research

An environmental sociologist by training and by heart, I orient my empirical research toward social scientific understandings of environmental protection in China. My work registers on three levels of empirical endeavors. They are: macro-sociological analysis of the Chinese state’s exercise of environmental power at home and overseas, micro-sociological inquiry into the rational calculus and sentimental instincts of Chinese state agents, and historical examination of the complex interplay of social and political forces that shaped the contemporary Chinese state, landscape, people, and their relations with the rest of the world. Below, I highlight some of my recent work. 

My book, China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet, provides an innovative, evidence-based analysis of China’s exercise of environmental power at home and overseas. In it, my co-author Judith Shapiro and I argue that, counterintuitively, the strength of China’s brand of state-led environmentalism hinges not on a strong state, but on mechanisms that place state power in check.

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In a 2018 article titled “China’s Summons for Environmental Sociology,” which was published in the International Sociological Association’s flagship journal, Current Sociology, my coauthors (Jack Zinda and John Liu) and I take stock of extant sociological studies into China’s environment. We stress how observations from China present opportunities for challenging and advancing Western-centric notions of neoliberalism, ecological modernization, environmental concerns, and the contradiction between economic development and ecological sustainability. The article concludes with a call for broadening the empirical scope of environmental sociological scholarship to be fully sensitive to the complexity of state-society relations in an increasingly interdependent world.

In a 2019 article titled “Bureaucracies Count: Environmental Governance through Goal-setting and Mandate-making in Contemporary China” published in Environmental Sociology, I provide detailed ethnographic evidence to show how Chinese officials’ single-minded pursuit of seemingly worthy environmental targets turns out to be counterproductive to the environmental cause. More often than not, the imperative to quantify environmental achievements runs into conflicts with the fragmented organization of China’s authoritarian bureaucracy. Presented with conflicting interests and orders, street-level bureaucrats are left with little choice but to withhold enforcement of environmental policies.

Presently, I’m working on my second book project, tentatively titled Down to Earth: Making Environmentalism Work under Authoritarianism. In it, I set out to investigate how low-level bureaucrats implement the environmental mandates that percolate down the chain of command to their desks. Through concrete cases drawn from extensive fieldwork across China between 2012 and 2017, I provide an in-depth look at the career ambitions, ideological loyalty, technocratic mindset, professional comradeship, native-place identity, and bureaucratic self-interest of Chinese officials. Taken together, the rational calculus and sentimental instincts of state agents shape the landscape of selective enforcement, incomplete implementation, and occasional over-achievement of environmental goals. The analysis puts a human face to the seemingly impersonal enterprise of environmental governance, contributing a novel understanding of the opportunities and challenges at the most practical, but least understood, level of environmental endeavors under authoritarianism. 

However, an attempt at understanding the environment and society in China cannot afford to lose sight of the complex and much-contested historical developments in China and the world. Therefore, I am increasingly drawn to the historical dimension of the environment and society of the Middle Kingdom, the third level of my research agenda. As a member of the interdisciplinary faculty group at NYU Shanghai for the Zaanheh Project: A Natural History of Shanghai, I am committed to investigating the historical evolution of human settlements’ relationships to natural elements in the area of present-day Shanghai. (The namesake, Zaanheh, is the romanization of the local dialectical pronunciation of the city’s name.)

 

yifei.li@nyu.edu  |  +01 608 616 0417  |  yifei.li