The Compensation Trap: The Limits of Community-Based Pollution Regulation in China

Benjamin van Rooij, UC Irvine School of Law
Anna Lora-Wainwright
Yunmei Wu
Yiyun Zhang


Our globe increasingly faces environmental risks from emerging markets such as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. Over the last decade a consensus has developed that the particular social, economic and regulatory contexts of emerging markets require a form of regulation that at leastpartly involves citizens, who it is believed can bring extra capacity and independence to overworked and captured state regulators. This paper focuses on the particular preconditions that are necessary for such citizen-based pollution regulation. It does so through an in-depth ethnographic case study conducted in southwest China, where given serious pollution and a clear awareness of such pollution, citizens have largely organized localized forms of collective action and bargaining without turning to outside regulators, media or courts, seeking compensation instead of prevention and control. The case study demonstrates how local socio-economic processes resulting from rapid industrialization combined with a lack of faith in state institutions have undermined citizens’ attempts to become successful regulators. To move them outside of the so-called ‘compensation trap’ and into a fruitful role as co-regulators, state regulators must learn to better trust and communicate with pollution victims, who can be and should be their natural regulatory allies.