The Politics of Environmental Protest in China and Malaysia


Wei Lit Yew

PhD defended at: 

City University of Hong Kong


Under conditions of non-democratic rule, when does environmental protest succeed (with the state making concessions) and when does it fail (with the state being unresponsive or resorting to repression)? What explains the specific protest strategies being utilised? Is the type of authoritarian regime pivotal in answering those questions? To see, I use a “most different cases” methodology, featuring a paired comparison of China, a single-party system, and Malaysia, a single-party dominant system. Further, these dissimilar country cases produce similar outcomes, with each displaying mixed records of protest success and failure.

To find the cause, I peer beneath authoritarian regime types to probe the calculus made by state officials over how to respond to environmental protest. This fine-grained analysis of the political opportunity structures under different regimes contributes to the broader debates on the causal role of institutions in environmental governance and contentious politics. It also marks a shift in the study of protest outcomes, with most analysts assigning causal weight to social forces, movements, and protest strategies. I demonstrate that officials in both China and Malaysia, when confronted by environmental protest, make calculations about the sunk financial costs of their projects and the political costs of accommodative or repressive responses. Additionally, in order to better assess the differences in national contexts and the similarities in calculations over costs, I use a framework of “institutional logics” to disaggregate “regime type,” focusing on specific institutions comprising regimes, namely state capacity, accountability requirements, and ideological constraints. Thus, in accordance with the incentives that institutional logics produce, state officials respond to environmental protest either with concessions or repression. Similarly, protesters act on these institutional logics, as they attempt to escalate the political costs of not meeting their demands.

The cases studies include local protests against noxious industrial facilities, two per country, including one that ended in success (in Xiamen, China and Broga, Malaysia), and one that ended in failure (in Chengdu, China and Kuantan, Malaysia). Data was collected between January and September 2015 from sources including interviews with activists, scientific experts, journalists, and state officials, as well as government, media and nongovernmental organisation reports.