Peter Ho – China’s Embedded Activism: Conflict, Civic action and Environment in a Semi-Authoritarian Context

Green Templeton College, Barclays Room

Saturday, October 31, 12.00- 13.00


“Social activism in China is not an activity with a fair degree of autonomy, but occupies a social space enmeshed in a web of interpersonal relations, informal rules, and shared ideas. Yet, different from a repressed activism these embedding conditions both limit it, while simultaneously making it possible. (…) As a result, there is less risk of social instability and repression at the hand of the governing elite” (Peter Ho in China’s embedded activism)



The emergence of social movements is generally seen as an indicator of democratization. The presentation argues that such a view overlooks the nature of political change in China, which entails a more gradual transition. In this light, several questions will be highlighted. What does the limited political space imply for the development of a social movement in China? Is the possibility for a social movement a precondition for the development of civil society? What are the prospects for the emergence of a social movement in China, and how would it relate to international forces? These questions are explored by focusing on one of the most active areas of civil society in contemporary China: the environmental realm. It is maintained that China’s semi-authoritarian political setup in association with increased social spaces for civic action has created a milieu for embeddedness in social movement. Contrary to totalitarian control, the semiauthoritarian environment is restrictive, but paradoxically, also conducive to nationwide, voluntary collective action.


Biographical sketch


Peter Ho is Chair Professor of Chinese Economy and Development and Director of the European Research Council (ERC) Project on Land Policy and Administration in China. Peter Ho has published over 10 books amongst which with Oxford University Press, Routledge, and Blackwell Publishers. Ho has been published extensively in leading SSCI and SCI-rated journals of Development, Planning, and Environment with impact factors from 5.805 to 9.599. His works have been cited in a total of 2,056 instances (1,304 over the past five years) and have an H-index of 25 articles with a minimum of 25 citations each. In recognition of his scientific achievements, Prof. Ho was awarded the prestigious Research Grant as Consolidator by the European Research Council (ERC). This highly competitive prize of 1.5 million Euros targets the top scientists within the European Union. The ERC Review Panel noted about Prof. Ho that he: “is a world renowned scholar with an impressive set of publications and awards to his name” while his achievements and publications “show great intellectual capacity and creativity” (ERC Review Report). Peter Ho has initiated and supervised large-scale projects with a total budget of over 5.7 million Euro. Peter Ho acts as advisor to members of the Chinese government and the Dutch Cabinet, including the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He has served on various commissions as a scientific advisor for the OECD, the EU, international corporations and banks. Prof. Ho also provides interviews for the media which have included USA Today, BBC, Belgian and Dutch 8 o’ Clock News, American PBS, and the China Daily.


Reactions to China’s Embedded Activism

Personally commended by Rem Koolhaas (Architect CCTV Building, Beijing and rated World’s 100 Most Influential Persons by Time Magazine), 2008

“China’s Embedded Activism is another important effort in making sense of the changes that are taking place in China… highly commendable [and] a helpful theoretical lens.” Wang Zhengxu, The China Quarterly, 2008

“A most important observation by Peter Ho is that the developmental pattern of environmental NGOs in China can be characterized as “embedded activism” – Zhan Xueyong, HK Research Council, 2011

Video, reviews and Chinese translation


Paul Jobin – The people vs Taiwan’s Radio Corporation of America: A Groundbreaking Toxic Tort Class Action

Paul Jobin
University of Paris Diderot


26 October 2015
China Centre, Canterbury road,
Seminar room 1, level 1


In April 2015, after seven years of court hearings and a mobilization that started in 1998, the district court of Taipei made a historic decision for legal class action in Taiwan, that bears important meanings for other industrial countries, in particular for countries with an important electronic industry like China or Korea, as well as for the resolution of other industrial diseases conflicts. The court ordered the defendant RCA – Radio Corporation of America – and its parent firm Technicolor (alias Thompson Electronics) to pay compensation in the sum of NT$ 560M to 445 plaintiffs, former workers at the RCA plant in Taoyuan, after determining that the company had exposed the employees to toxic substances by illegally disposing of its used chemicals. Some plaintiffs were excluded from that decision because of prescription—a major obstacle considering the long latency between exposure to the toxicants and the occurrence of health problems. Also the amount of compensation decided by the judges is low compared to toxic torts in the U.S. or Japan. In addition another parent company, the American firm General Electric, has not been condemned. So the trial will now continue at the court of appeal with an additional group of plaintiffs (making that a group of near 1500 plaintiffs). Beyond money, the main issue that matters for the leaders of that mobilization is a question of social justice: individuals and families whose lives have been torn by corporate negligence and cynicism wish that the full extent of the damage be recognized.

In contrast with toxic torts focusing on one toxicant (asbestos or nuclear radiation for instance), this trial has dealt with a “cocktail” of toxicants (among which organic solvents like trichloroethylene played a preeminent role) and numerous consequences on the health of the workers: several types of cancers, miscarriages, irregular menstruations, etc. As a consequence, with the help of many experts and scholars, the plaintiffs and their lawyers have made tremendous efforts to gather sufficient proof so as to establish the causality between the pathologies and the exposure to the toxicants. This civil action in Taiwan might therefore create a precedent for the current regulation of occupational and environmental health. It may also question the consequences of the long haul effects of some foreign investments. By virtue of the
number of plaintiffs, the nature of the defense (a combination of foreign companies) and the extreme complexity of the toxicological and epidemiological causality, the litigation – what is
called “toxic tort” in the U.S. – is an outstanding case study for public health sciences, law and social sciences. In Taiwan where RCA has paved the way for the success story of the electronics
industry, it has also become a symbolic issue that questions the priorities of economic development vs. public health prevention. After RCA factories were closed in Taiwan in 1992,
the production was transferred to China where similar problems can be expected.

Paul Jobin is currently Associate professor in the Department of East Asian Studies of Paris Diderot University. From 2007 to 2013, he conducted research at the French Centre for Research
on Contemporary China – Taiwan branch, first as guest researcher and later as director. From January 2016, he will be based again in Taiwan, at the Institute of Sociology of Academia Sinica. Since his PhD dissertation, his research has focused on industrial diseases in Japan and Taiwan.

His talk at CHEW will follow on a recent book chapter with Yu-Hwei Tseng: “Guinea Pigs Go to Court: Epidemiology and Class Actions in Taiwan,” in Powerless Science? The Making of the
Toxic World in the Twentieth Century (Berghahn Books 2014).
For his complete CV and more publications:

View in pdf.: Paul-Jobin Oxford