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


Dr. Anna Boermel


Anna Boermel is Lecturer in the Social Anthropology of China at King’s College London. She holds degrees in Chinese Studies (BA, Oxford) and Social Anthropology (MPhil and DPhil, Oxford). Before joining the Lau China Institute at KCL she was Departmental Lecturer in the Politics and Society of Modern China at the University of Oxford and Research and Teaching Fellow in Contemporary Chinese Society at the University of Cambridge. Anna has spent almost four years conducting anthropological research in urban China. Her research interests include demographic change, governance, environment and health, and space in urban China.

Talk title – Old Age in Urban China: Opportunities and Challenges



Dr. Michael Hathaway


Dr. Michael Hathaway is an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, BC), with a PhD from the University of Michigan. Since the mid-1990s, he has been studying the emergence of environmentalism in Southwest China. His first book, Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China (University of California Press, 2013), seeks to understand how environmentalism was refashioned in China, not only by conservationists, but also by rural villagers and even animals, such as China’s last herd of wild elephants. His second major project examines the global commodity chain of one of the world’s most expensive mushrooms, following it from the highlands of the Tibetan Plateau to the markets of urban Japan.He explores the role of nonhuman agencies such as the mushroom itself and the insects that seek it out, in shaping the tempo and dynamics of the more than half million Chinese who harvest it from the mountains, trade in this mushroom, and send it to Japan.

Keynote speech title: The Emergence of Global Environmentalism in China

Dr. Anna Lora-Wainwright

Dr. Anna Lora-Wainwright is Associate Professor in the Human Geography of China at the University of Oxford. She holds a BA in Social Anthropology (SOAS), an MA in Chinese Studies (SOAS) and a PhD in Anthropology (Oxon). Her research concerns development, health and environmental issues in rural China. It has been supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, The British Inter-University China Centre, the Social Science Research Council and the Leverhulme Trust. She recently published a special issue of the journal The China Quarterly on Dying for Development: Pollution, Illness and the Limits of Citizens’ Agency in China (2013, Cambridge University Press) and a monograph titled Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village (University of Hawaii Press, 2013).

Talk title: Doing anthropology of cancer in rural China