East Asia Workshop: Politics, Economy and Society

Feb 6 | Anna L. Ahlers, “China’s ‘Airpocalypse’ and its Political Impact”




China’s ‘Airpocalypse’ and its Political Impact”


Anna Lisa Ahlers


Associate Professor in Modern Chinese Society and Politics

Department of Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages

University of Oslo

Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago

Feb 6, Wed 12:00-1:30 pm

Pick Lounge, 5828 South University Ave.

Pizza will be provided


For about a decade now air pollution is the most hotly debated environmental problem in Chinese society. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the huge winter smog events of 2012/13 in Northeastern cities marked a watershed in communication about this problem. Concern about the health effects of heavy air pollution has become a fact of life for Chinese urbanites but did also fuel demands for political solutions. In 2013 the government issued an action plan for air pollution control (which was recently renewed) and declared a high-profile war on environmental pollution a year later, introducing some harsh new measures and sweeping monitoring of their implementation. China’s newfound “authoritarian environmentalism” in fact seems to have yielded significant results already, as even Greenpeace admits, and average annual urban air pollution has been on the decline in recent years. How has this turnaround in Chinese environmental politics, which was largely ineffective for decades, been possible and what are its main features?


In my talk, I will draw some preliminary conclusions concerning the political impact of China’s “airpocalypse”, based on almost five years of research in an international and interdisciplinary project team (AIRBORNE, hosted at the University of Oslo – more). I argue that the smog experience turns out to have been a trigger for overall changes in environmental governance in China, especially at the interfaces of political authorities, science, media and the general public. I will present some examples of these – sometimes rather surprising – new governance mechanisms, their background and effects. Last but not least, the apparent return of extreme smog events this winter also calls into question the government’s preferred narrative, and I will outline some of the current questions that warrant further research on this topic.


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The East Asia Workshop is sponsored by the Council on Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences.

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