More so than for other countries, the management of China’s water resources is an important aspect of its policy and politics, yet existing scholarly attempts to understand this importance are scattered among a wide range of sub-literatures that lack a unifying theoretical framework. This article attempts to identify common themes and features of the relationship between water, politics and governance in contemporary China by examining how this relationship has unfolded in historical perspective. It identifies three basic objectives that have shaped the politics and governance of China’s water resources over time: legitimacy, economic development and environmental sustainability. These objectives map, though imperfectly, onto different periods in the history of the People’s Republic of China, thereby highlighting how they have evolved. Together, these objectives explain policies towards, and the politics of, water resources in contemporary China. This understanding shows that water both shapes and reflects Chinese politics, and highlights the need for a theoretically coherent sub-literature on Chinese water policy and politics.
Scott Moore is a political scientist whose interests center on environmental sustainability, technology, and international relations. His first book, Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins (Oxford University Press, 2018), examines how climate change and other pressures affect the likelihood of conflict over water within countries. At Penn, Scott is Director of the Penn Global China Program and Senior Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and The Water Center at Penn. Previously, Scott was a Young Professional and Water Resources Management Specialist at the World Bank Group, and Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer for China at the U.S. Department of State, where he worked extensively on the Paris Agreement on climate change. Prior to entering public service, Scott was Giorgio Ruffolo Post-Doctoral Research Fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Scott’s research and commentary on a wide range of environmental and international affairs issues has appeared in a range of leading scholarly journals and media outlets, including Nature, The China Quarterly, Foreign Affairs, and The New York Times. Scott holds doctoral and master’s degrees from Oxford University and an undergraduate degree from Princeton. He is a Truman, Fulbright, and Rhodes Scholar.