Seismic science, state reason, and disaster risk regulation in China's fragmented authoritarianism

Authors: Qiaonan Li*, , David Demeritt, Supervisor
Topics: Development, Land Use, Hazards, Risks, and Disasters
Keywords: spatial planning, disaster risk reduction
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Calvert Room, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In China, spatial planning is subject to local land use and construction permitting processes but also required to undergo seismic safety assessment. Drawing on fieldwork in the earthquake-prone provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, this paper explores the role of seismic science in the design and implementation of local land use planning and construction earthquake safety requirements. Land use planning and disaster risk reduction in China involves different departments whose authority is formally absolute but in practice vertically fragments, horizontally overlapping, and therefore politically uncertain. Policy conflicts in this context are inevitable, given both the inherent trade-offs between earthquake safety and economic growth and the conflicting institutional preference of the national, provincial, and county-level. Chinese Earthquake Administration in some cases is against their more growth-oriented counterparts, such as Department of Planning and the Department of Construction. To resolve these tensions and coordinate the vertical ‘tiao’ and horizontal ‘kuai’ structure of Chinese public administration, government officials rely on informal negotiation and personal relationships, rather than completely appealing to the impersonal authority of science-based decision-making. Science and technical expertise remain valuable resources in negotiating seismic safety regulation, but contrary both to liberal ideas about science as the foundation of rational policy-making and check on arbitrary state action and to post-political critiques of science-based policymaking as a technocratic tool for putting properly political matters beyond dispute, science is not central to state reason or the rationalisation of spatial developing in case of disaster risk reduction, whose legitimacy depends much more on outcomes.

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