Elizabeth Plantan, a China postdoctoral fellow with the Ash Center, spent her 21st birthday in Irkutsk, Siberia, near Lake Baikal. The temperature was minus 55 degrees Fahrenheit. “It's the sort of cold where your eyelashes freeze, but everyone still walks everywhere in the snow,” she recalled.
Plantan, then an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, made the long trek to Irkutsk because she hoped to completely embed herself into Russian culture and community. “I wanted there to be very few foreigners so I wouldn't have any temptation to speak English,” she said of her decision to swap the mild climate of Middletown, Connecticut, for the subarctic Siberian environment.
A new perspective
Plantan spent her time in Irkutsk working for an environmental NGO that built trails around Lake Baikal for ecotourism. Through her experience, her perception of the country changed. “It's not what you think about when you think about Stalin-era Russia. . . . The people are free and cosmopolitan,” she reflected. She discovered civil society had improved and NGOs had some power despite the constraints they faced under Moscow's watchful eye. “People can speak freely and talk about politics in a way that I think maybe a lot of Americans wouldn't expect,” she added.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in Government and Russian and East European Studies, Plantan went on to complete a master’s degree at Indiana University in Russian and East European Studies where she also began studies in the university's flagship Chinese language program. With her intellectual interest in China sparked, Plantan chose to write her master’s thesis comparing two case studies of environmental movements in Russia and China. When it came time to apply to PhD programs, it seemed a given that she propose researching environmental activism in the two countries.
Common story, divergent path
Russia and China have a shared history, not only of communist revolution but also of rapid industrialization. The landscapes of both countries have been ravaged in the name of breakneck industrial development, and in both, environmental activists are working to prevent further environmental degradation. Despite these similarities, Plantan thought it illustrative to investigate whether green activists are treated the same in both countries, and to ask why some environmental groups succeed while others fail.
Accepted to Cornell University’s Government Department, Plantan began working to answer these questions through ethnographic research and fieldwork in Russia and China. “These environmental activists were putting themselves at risk just talking to me,” she reflected. “Even if they had normally talked in the media or were already openly doing their activism, in both countries, Russia and China, over the years, sensitivities about foreigners have gotten so high.” At the same time, she found environmentalists were keen to talk about their work and often invested time to share their experiences with her. “I was always really touched any time someone was really willing to sit down with me for hours,” Plantan recalled.
Plantan's doctoral research revealed a counterintuitive finding. Despite the fact that Russia has comparatively a more open society, “it's much harder for Russian environmental activists to gain results from the state than it is for the Chinese,” she concluded. The Russian state, Plantan found, is more repressive toward environmental groups and actors than the Chinese government, which is notorious for quelling almost all public criticism. This outcome begged a new question, why?
After receiving her PhD in the fall of 2018, Plantan joined the Ash Center as a postdoctoral fellow in the China Programs. The Ash Center offered her the space and time to continue her work and turn her findings into a book manuscript that answered questions around why the two countries treated environmental NGOs so differently.
“Her work on environmental activism and civil society fits well with our interest in state-society relations,” said Ash Center Director Tony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs. “The fact that she is able to compare policy developments in China and Russia was a bonus as not many researchers have been able to look at this in detail.”
During her time at the Center, Plantan has explored the two primary reasons for the divergence between China and Russia. The first, she said, is the driving economic force in each country. “On the Russian side, it's pretty clear. It's natural resources. Anything that threatens either the national economy or all of these elite interests that are wrapped up into natural resources would be threatening to the state,” she noted. Conversely, the Chinese economy is built on large-scale manufacturing and not nearly as dependent on extractive industries as Russia.
The second piece to the puzzle is historical legacy. There was a strong environmental movement at the end of the Soviet Union following the Chernobyl catastrophe, explains Plantan. “For the environmentalists, it taught them that they can use mass protests and mass mobilization and achieve great things. But it also taught the state that it's movements that have the ability to upend order,” she observed. In China, the events around Tiananmen Square taught the state a different lesson. “So, to the extent that the Chinese government is really worried about civil society groups, they tend to be most worried about workers and students.”
Plantan’s research has not only been valuable to her academic peers; she shared her expertise with the Harvard community at an Ash Center event on protest in China in February 2019 and served as a teaching fellow in Saich’s popular HKS course, The Political Economy of China. In the future, she says, “I would really love to be a professor. I loved being in the classroom . . . it just felt good to be lecturing.”
“Elizabeth will make a great classroom teacher,” said Saich. “She is a first-rate researcher; I look forward to the publication of her book and following her academic career.”
Written by Sarah Grucza, Communications Specialist