Toxic Politics

Chinas Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State

CFR Senior Fellow Yanzhong Huang discusses how China’s environmental crisis is undermining public health and becoming an Achilles heel in its reemergence as a global power.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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Energy and Environment

Environmental degradation in China has not only brought a wider range of diseases and other health consequences than previously understood, it has also taken a heavy toll on Chinese society, the economy, and the legitimacy of the party-state. In Toxic Politics, Yanzhong Huang presents new evidence of China’s deepening health crisis and challenges the widespread view that China is winning the war on pollution. Although government leaders are learning, stricter and more centralized policy enforcement measures have not been able to substantially reduce pollution or improve public health. Huang connects this failure to pathologies inherent in the institutional structure of the Chinese party-state, which embeds conflicting incentives for officials and limits the capacity of the state to deliver public goods. Toxic Politics reveals a political system that is remarkably resilient but fundamentally flawed. Huang examines the implications for China’s future, both domestically and internationally.

Educators: Access Teaching Notes for Toxic Politics.

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Public Health Threats and Pandemics


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Reviews and Endorsements

It may not be the most entertaining book published this year, but in foreign relations it may be among the most useful.

Wall Street Journal

Huang has animated a dry subject and brought it to life. . . . The book is a tremendous read. The spill-over effects of the problem set that he so eloquently unpacks here will have obvious global consequence. . . . I hope that it is translated into Chinese and read widely by members of the Chinese public as well as the political establishment in China.

Craig Allen, President, U.S.-China Business Council, and U.S. Ambassador (ret)

Yanzhong Huang has accomplished a remarkable achievement: he offers us a comprehensive, truly interdisciplinary study of interrelated Chinese political, economic, and societal dynamics through a deep dive into the relationship between two vitally important policy areas, environmental degradation and its effects on citizens’ health.

Andrew Mertha, George and Sadie Hyman Professor and Director of China Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Bringing well-researched data to life through poignant personal narratives, Huang documents devastating air, water, and soil pollution—and the Party’s conflicted approach to acknowledging and addressing its toll on citizens’ health. To understand some of China’s most pressing challenges now and in the future, read this book!

Andrew S. Erickson, Professor, Naval War College, and Visiting Scholar, Harvard Fairbank Center

This book addresses a key question as to how a major environmental health crisis may influence China’s rise. The book systematically reviews the fundamental economic, sociopolitical, foreign policy and health implications of the crisis and its policy response. The book also offers an intriguing assessment of the evolvement and implementation of environmental health policies in China. It is a must-read for those who are interested in global environmental health and policy issues.

Xi Chen, Associate Professor, Yale University, and President, China Health Policy and Management Society

Toxic Politics does not hedge or equivocate. China must first heal its body politic before it will effectively address its environmental slide and heal its people. Willing participation by citizens in environmental and health action, as well as in overall governance, is necessary for a healthy environment and a sustainable great power.

David M. Lampton, Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow, Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center, and Former Director of China Studies, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies

Toxic Politics is a gem of a volume. This historically grounded, multidisciplinary analysis clearly explains not only China’s wide ranging environmental problems and their devastating public health consequences but also the political, bureaucratic, social and international factors that have stimulated - and also distorted and weakened implementation of - policy initiatives to ameliorate these problems.

Kenneth G. Lieberthal, Senior Fellow Emeritus, Brookings Institution

Toxic Politics is a must read for the times we live in. . . . This comprehensive and fascinating book not only provides new information on the consequences of pollution on an array of diseases and health concerns, but also examines the Chinese political system that allowed this toxic pollution to happen. . . . As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a host of other pressing global problems, Toxic Politics is full of valuable insights into how the Chinese government responds to crises that will matter to us all.

Margaret A. Hamburg, Foreign Secretary, National Academy of Medicine, and Former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

In this astonishingly prescient analysis, Yanzhong Huang zeroes in on the vital link between China’s political health and its physical health. His tough, fair-minded, deeply knowledgeable book not only diagnoses grave problems lurking behind China’s environmental progress but also provides a cautionary note about China’s bid for global leadership. Anyone who wants to predict China's growth prospects needs to read this.

Evan Osnos, Author of Age of Ambition

Toxic Politics is a fascinating, lively, and authoritative account of the successes and failures of China’s environmental authoritarianism particularly under Xi Jinping. Essential reading for anyone worried about pollution and health in China. I can’t think of a better book for teaching political science students about Chinese politics and policymaking.

Susan L. Shirk, Research Professor and Chair, School of Global Policy and Strategy’s 21st Century China Center, University of California, San Diego

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