Environmental organising in Beijing emerged in an unlikely place in the 2000s: new gated residential communities. After rapid population growth and housing construction led to a ballooning trash problem and overflowing landfills, many first-time homeowners found their new neighbourhoods facing an unappetizing prospect—waste incinerator projects slated for their backyards.
Delving into the online and offline conversations of communities affected by the proposed incinerators, A Spark in the Smokestacks: Environmental Organizing in Beijing Middle-Class Communities (Columbia University Press, 2023) by Dr. Jean Yen-chun Lin demonstrates how a rising middle class acquires the capacity for organising in an authoritarian context. Dr. Lin examines how urban residents create civic life through everyday associational activities—learning to defend property rights, fostering participation, and mobilising to address housing-related grievances. She shows that homeowners cultivated petitioning skills, informational networks, and community leadership, which they would later deploy against incinerator projects. To interact with government agencies, they developed citizen science–based tactics, a middle-class alternative to disruptive protests. Homeowners drew on their professional connections, expertise, and fundraising capabilities to produce reports that boosted their legitimacy in city-level dialogue. Although only one of the three incinerator projects Dr. Lin follows was ultimately cancelled, some communities established durable organisations that went on to tackle other environmental problems.
Drawing on interviews, participant observation, and ethnography, A Spark in the Smokestacks casts urban Chinese communities as “schools of democracy,” in which residents learn civic skills and build capacity for collective organising. Through compelling case studies of local activism, this book sheds new light on the formation of civil society and social movements more broadly.
This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose forthcoming book focuses on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.