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A Spark in the Smokestacks: Environmental Organizing in Beijing Middle-Class Communities Jean Yen-chun Lin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. 344 pp. $35.00; £30.00 (pbk). ISBN 9780231194518

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A Spark in the Smokestacks: Environmental Organizing in Beijing Middle-Class Communities Jean Yen-chun Lin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. 344 pp. $35.00; £30.00 (pbk). ISBN 9780231194518

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 April 2024

Yao Li*
Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
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Book Review
Copyright © The Author(s), 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of SOAS University of London

The main question addressed in A Spark in the Smokestacks concerns the rise of vibrant civic associations in China, an authoritarian setting. To this end, the book delves into environmental activism in Beijing's new gated communities in response to the challenges posed by waste incineration projects. Through detailed case studies and a blend of interviews, participant observation and ethnography, Jean Yen-chun Lin examines how first-time middle-class homeowners, faced with the threat of incineration projects, mobilized and staged collective action against the projects. Her book highlights the role of community conversations, both online and offline, in fostering participation and mobilizing against environmental grievances.

While only one of the three incinerator projects of interest was eventually abandoned, Lin showcases the development of civic skills such as petitioning, networking and leadership within these communities. She illustrates the use of “citizen science”-based tactics as a method of engagement with government agencies, emphasizing the role of professional connections and expertise in the process. Through case studies of communities resisting the three incineration projects, this book contributes to a better understanding of the dynamics of grassroots activism and civic engagement in an authoritarian context.

Specifically, the first chapter sets the stage by reviewing China's housing reforms, demographic trends and the rise of private homeownership, exploring how these changes relate to homeowners’ associational life and self-organization. Against this backdrop, chapter two zooms in on the three selected cases of new urban middle-class housing communities in Beijing: Community Meadow and Neighbouring Communities Willow and Pine; Community Rose; and Community Marigold. This chapter elaborates on the formation of associations and the development of collective identity of “homeowners” within these communities. The following two chapters then spotlight the role of community leaders or representatives in framing, making sense of external threats and grievances, and mobilizing and organizing for collective action by the homeowners in each of the discussed communities. The chapters compare similarities and differences among tactics and actions taken by each community. In particular, Lin points out that community leaders in the two failed protest cases (Communities Rose and Marigold) did not develop or even draw on existing community strengths, whereas Community Meadow and its neighbours could steadily expand the number of anti-incineration protest participants, allocating responsibilities, facilitating interactions and building relationships (p. 124).

Chapter five explores the “citizen science” approach, in which citizens engage in scientific data collection and interpretation (p. 163). This approach was commonly taken by middle-class homeowners in order to more effectively impose pressure on the government to block targeted incineration projects. After illustrating tactics and actions of activism in these communities, chapter six discusses the consequences of the community organizing. Lin stresses the positive impact of homeowners’ collective action on the fostering of middle-class identities and a sense of civic responsibility, as well as on the building of enduring community organizations that extend to issues beyond incineration. This is true even for failed cases. One consequence of the homeowners’ organizing efforts was their newfound role in environmental education and their participation in workshops and talks in environmental NGOs.

Despite the careful comparison of the three cases, some questions remain. First, why did community leaders in those communities take different tactics as they did? In particular, why did community leaders in some communities opt for individual actions over a common framing? Could this be a strategic choice to avoid government repression? For instance, in a high-profile successful anti-incineration campaign in Guangzhou, activists also encouraged individual actions and framed their collective petition as leaderless, individual actions to preempt government repression. This strategy bears parallel with a strategy termed as “disguised collective action” by China expert Diana Fu, in which organizers coach workers in turning group grievances into limited or individual protests (which have a network behind them). In this sense, that Community Rose representatives encouraged individual actions might be a strategic choice rather than the reason for explaining the failure of their protests.

Likewise, comparing community differences in mobilizing and organizing, A Spark in the Smokestacks emphasizes the fact that community leaders in Rose and Marigold failed to take advantage of existing community strengths. Then, a subsequent question is: why did they fail to do so? In addition to individual or community choice, do structural factors and external reasons (such as political capital, homeownership type and government reaction) matter? How would homeowners in these different communities explain their tactics and differences across communities? The representatives from these communities held meetings together and shared experiences with each other. What would they have to say about differences in organization tactics? In brief, why did different communities resort to the tactics they chose?

Furthermore, a main argument of the book is that collective action of homeowners helps build durable community organizations that extend to issues beyond incineration, even for communities of failed cases. This might be true for some homeowners in those communities. Yet is it possible that the failure of anti-incineration activism might have disempowered other homeowners and undermine civic engagement? Finally, the evidence presented to show enduring environmental activism is from events that occurred on the heels of the collective action. Since over ten years have passed and China has transitioned from the Hu-Wen era to the Xi era, how enduring are those organizations and activism today?

Overall, with its rich data, this book is a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of civil society, environmental activism and contentious politics.