Waste incineration controversy in China: Contesting Technologies

Waste Incineration Controversy in China: Contesting Technologies and Debating
ZHANG Jieying
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
In last 30 years, China has experienced a booming economic growth and rapid
urbanization. Used to “struggle hard” in socialist era, people now are enthusiastically
embracing the consumptionism; celebrating their new identities as customers. A
consequence of this is a waste crisis– almost all the cities are besieged by landfills and
municipal governments are facing an unprecedented challenge to treat huge amounts
of waste. To deal with this, local governments start the constructions of treatment
projects such as waste incineration power plant. However, these plans are facing
fierce not-in-my-back-yard protests by surrounding residents, due to the rising rights
consciousness of Chinese people as well as their emerging environmental concerns.
The protesters maintain that toxic emissions from waste incinerating, dioxin in
particular, probably cause cancer.
This research is a scrutiny of the anti-incineration campaign in post-socialist China.
Employing an anthropological methodology, I did my 12-month field work in
Guangzhou, worked closely with a local anti-incinerator NGO and a waste treatment
research institution. Focusing on the controversy of waste incineration technologies, I
examine how the pro-incineration governments and experts legitimize waste
incineration and how the anti-incineration activists challenge the authorities
accordingly. Applying global green discourses, supporters argue that incineration
power plant, as “new energy and green technology”, fits in with the state agenda of
“sustainable development”. Through popular science education and propaganda, they
represent incinerator as a modern, advanced and flawless high-tech facility to the
public. On the other hand, anti-incineration activists construct their own expertise
through self-teaching and investigation. They challenge the authorities by questioning
the emission data and pointing out the operational risk of the incinerator. Further, they
analyze the composition and property of the waste generated by Guangzhou residents
and argue that incineration is not the most “locally appropriate” technology to treat
I read the campaign as a dynamic process of knowledge production. Institutions such
as local governments, research institutions, NGOs and individuals like technocrats,
researchers, activists and citizens actively participate in this process and constitute a
rhizomatic network within which three clusters of knowledge are being exchanged,
transferred and reconstructed: 1, the technical knowledge of waste incineration and
physicochemical properties of emissions are represented, circulated and conceived; 2,
the ideas of “what is waste” and “what is a locally appropriate way to treat waste” are
invoked, redefined and integrated; 3, the global environmental protection discourses,
ecological thoughts and ethics are introduced, translated and employed.
I argue that the anti-incineration campaign in China is not simply a story of “scientific
elitism vs. the ordinary people”. In this story, the anti-incineration activists actively
construct themselves as grass-roots experts via synthesizing multiple types of
knowledge, including science. What I am trying to present is how two kinds of
“expertise” compete with each other in this process. Moreover, the incineration
technology controversy is not necessarily the encounters between the global
technoscience and local knowledge. Rather, the technologies under dispute as well as
what constitutes the “local” are being articulated and reconstructed constantly in the