Faculty Highlight

Yifei Li
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU Shanghai

Yifei’s research is primarily concerned with the political underpinning of environmentalism in China, both past and present. His overall research agenda centers around the question of how the increasing salience of environmental protection in Chinese politics challenges or reinforces existing social-science knowledge about contemporary China. Using an interdisciplinary lens, his work engages with multiple social-science and humanities fields. The broad reader reception of his writings, presentations, and practices reflects this orientation.

China Goes Green

Some of Yifei’s work advances a macro-sociological analysis of the Chinese state’s exercise of environmental power at home and overseas. In his first book, China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet (Polity 2020), Yifei and his co-author Judith Shapiro of American University probe the concrete mechanisms of China’s coercive environmentalism to show how “going green” helps the state to further other agendas such as citizen surveillance and geopolitical influence. Through top-down initiatives, regulations, and campaigns to mitigate pollution and environmental degradation, the Chinese authorities also promote control over the behavior of individuals and enterprises, the pacification of borderlands, and the expansion of Chinese power and influence along the Belt and Road and even into the global commons. Given the limited time that remains to mitigate climate change and protect millions of species from extinction, we need to consider whether a green authoritarianism can show us the way. This book explores both its promises and its risks.

Environmentalism of, by, and for the State

Yifei’s research also includes micro-sociological inquiries into the rational calculus and sentimental instincts of Chinese state agents. In his next book project, tentatively titled Environmentalism of, by, and for the Chinese State, Yifei draws on concrete evidence from his extensive fieldwork to provide a richly detailed account of state-backed environmentalism. This monograph advances the central argument that the problem in contemporary China is not the lack of environmental considerations in its state bureaucracy, but the omnipresence of environmentalism to the point of banality. The Chinese state is characterized by environmental “plenty,” that is, a systemic overstocking of environmental targets, goals, slogans, rules, mandates, projects, institutions, and even values. This abundance has not led to improvements in China’s ecological conditions, nor in the environmental experiences of the Chinese people. This has the unfortunate effect of numbing the environmental sensibility of state officials. Against the constant cacophony of high-minded pronouncements from above and urgent outcries from below, state agents tend to adopt a blasé attitude in their everyday handling of environmental challenges.

Beyond Environmental Politics

An environmental sociologist by training and by heart, Yifei also works on the environmental entanglements of Daoism, extractive activities in the Belt and Road initiative, Shanghai waterfront development and governance, the global green economic transition, and the cultural politics of food, among other exciting topics. His work has appeared in top academic journals, edited volumes, disciplinary handbooks, and popular press outlets. 

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