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Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China: A Conversation with Annah Lake Zhu

November 17, 2022

Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China: A Conversation with Annah Lake Zhu

Jessica DiCarlo, Annah Lake Zhu

China and the environment often sit in tension—for example, China is a primary polluter while also the key to our global environmental security, and China is both the largest deforester and the largest planter of trees. How might we reconcile demand for resources within China and the country’s efforts to preserve these resources? Can one resource help us rethink global conservation efforts in the twenty-first century and, in turn, the concept of Global China? In her new book, Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China (Harvard University Press, 2022), Annah Lake Zhu grapples with these questions, offering a rigorous look at China’s growing environmentalism through the boom in rosewood trade between China and Madagascar.

Rosewood is the world’s most trafficked endangered species by value and its supply is declining. Demand is fuelled by China’s 26 billion USD market for traditional furniture as Chinese consumers seek to reclaim a cultural heritage that was condemned as bourgeois during the Cultural Revolution. Much of the timber for rosewood furniture is extracted directly from forests in Africa and Asia, which has led to international restrictions on its trade. Zhu suggests that such environmental responses overlook the economic and cultural dimensions of rosewood demand, with deleterious effects.

She illuminates the drivers of the trade from consumption to conservation and the effects it has within forest communities and the Malagasy state. Key to her analysis is how rosewood is valued from different perspectives, including those of Chinese loggers and traders, residents of northeast Madagascar, and Western conservationists. The extraction of rosewood offers residents access to capital and a means to reclaim forests. Meanwhile, the tree is also perceived as a symbol of cultural identity and sophistication, and of the demise of global biodiversity. More than holding these perspectives in tension, Zhu shows how each is rooted in a preservationist logic that ‘reinvents an idyllic past to meet the needs of the present’ (p. 15).

A mixed forest/rice-farming landscape in central Madagascar. PC: Annah Zhu.

Zhu’s rich ethnography traverses China’s largest rosewood commercial centre and forests and plantations in Madagascar. She begins in China, tracing rosewood’s imperial past and contemporary revival to argue that the current boom in consumption is a product of cultural legacies and financial speculation. In the Malagasy forests, the rosewood boom results in ‘hot money’ spending. Alongside an influx of capital, the rosewood trade offers locals a means to ‘take back’ national parks that they view as being under the influence of Western conservation orthodoxy. Zhu then turns to the evolution of conservation in Madagascar, showing how both military-inspired protectionist and community-based participatory approaches often backfire. For example, rather than stopping the trade, Western ‘rosewood task forces’ penalise those who participate in it, which often increases deforestation as loggers cut more trees in anticipation of fines. Additionally, Western trade bans have increased prices, leading to speculation, and even criminal activity.

While Western rosewood conservation efforts remain protectionist, Zhu finds that the Chinese Government and firms are investing in rosewood preservation through expansive mixed-use agroforests. This sustainable approach, she suggests, offers a Chinese environmentalism that both preserves species and circumvents a Western conservation ethic. By exploring Chinese demand for endangered species alongside differences between Western and Chinese approaches to conservation, divergent global approaches to the environment and biodiversity are abundantly clear. Zhu concludes that what is at stake when we think about contemporary Global China is ‘how the country could rewrite globalization and the environment on its own terms’ (p. 33). She calls for a global environmentalism of the twenty-first century that both reconciles these approaches and decentres the West. As she meticulously demonstrates, this will only be possible through genuine and unbiased understanding of China’s approach to the environment and the local processes and effects of resource extraction.

Logs piled outside of the Furen timber market in Shanghai, China. PC: Annah Zhu.
Loggers transporting rosewood through a village in northeastern Madagascar. PC: Annah Zhu.

Jessica DiCarlo: Your opening vignette is powerful as you describe the theft of six priceless Chinese artworks from the residence of the King of Sweden—one of a series of heists of Chinese artefacts taken by Western powers over the centuries. By viewing these thefts from Western and Chinese perspectives, you raise questions of market versus cultural value and underscore the thin line between repatriation and crime. You push readers to think about how something is valued and by whom. Could you talk about why you started with this vignette, how you landed on it, and what it opens us to in the book?

Annah Lake Zhu: This opening was originally hidden in a chapter deep in the book and my editor suggested I move it towards the beginning. It was a great suggestion because it allowed me to start from a non-environmental place. It gets readers to consider a case that seems to have nothing to do with the environment, where there are stark differences in perspectives—Chinese art ‘thefts’ or ‘repatriations’—depending on different cultural/sociopolitical vantage points. In this sense, it’s an easy example of clear differences in global perspective that does not come with all the discursive baggage and pre-existing biases one may have when discussing the environment. Starting from a non-environmental place, I can show readers how this same type of relativism in fact applies to discussions of the global environment and endangered species. The lines between what is right and wrong, how things should or should not be done, are also not so clear when it comes to environmental actions, but it is harder to see this. The rest of the book is then about revealing these conflicted positions when it comes to endangered species and the environment.

I also liked the idea of starting with the issue of repatriation because it’s a very hot topic now. It’s frequently understood, however, in terms of indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups. But when it comes to the question of China and repatriation, the dynamic changes. Rather than repatriation to a marginalised group, it’s to a strong, powerful counter to the West—which of course many indigenous groups can also be, but here it’s in a different way. It makes you question the drive to repatriate at all and it makes you look at the process of repatriation a little differently, and I really liked to have that in the beginning. Then readers take that example with them throughout the book. What might repatriation look like when it comes to endangered species and the environment? What does it mean to give Malagasy people the ability to protect or use their resources as they see fit? And, perhaps more polemically, where might China fit in this process of environmental repatriation—especially when it comes to the country’s seemingly insatiable demand for rosewood and other endangered species?

JD: I appreciate how you examine globalisation, the rise of China, and global environmentalism through one commodity: Malagasy rosewood. Can you tell us about rosewood in the multiple ways you discuss and think about it in the book: the tree itself, as a highly speculative commodity, a cultural product, and a resource to conserve?

ALZ: From a conservation perspective, rosewood is a group of threatened and endangered tree species that grow throughout the tropics and are particularly imperilled in Madagascar due to a history of logging that dates to before the colonial period. Since 2000, China has overtaken the West as the primary destination of rosewood logs cut from Madagascar. But rosewood in China is valued very differently than in the West. There, it has come to be far more expensive than it ever was in the United States or France because of the wood’s unique cultural history in the country. Rosewood from Madagascar happens to look remarkably like a rosewood variety used in late imperial China that is now commercially extinct. Because of this likeness, the wood is worth exponentially more than it was before. The growing demand has triggered logging booms in the forests of Madagascar and, in response, the deployment of militarised conservation forces in an attempt to stop the logging. Meanwhile, in China, the wood fuels a 26 billion USD market for classical furniture.

Elaborate carvings on rosewood panels at a furniture factory in Shenzhen, China. PC: George Zhu.

JD: You contrast Western conspicuous consumption and cultural capitalism. Can you tell us more about that contrast and explain why, from a Chinese perspective, rosewood is so highly valued?

ALZ: Often we miss how much cultural elements play into everyday Chinese life. In the United States or Europe, people talk about China’s demand for endangered species as a type of conspicuous consumption. Buying and selling endangered species are understood first and foremost as a way to make money and be seen as rich. Many recent texts, especially now with Covid-19, are also trying to understand Chinese demand for wildlife in terms of Chinese tradition—that is, in cultural terms. But these two types of explanations—the cultural versus the economic—are often seen as competing. Which one is it? Which one really matters? Are Chinese people really embracing cultural ideals or are they just trying to make money? But what’s more interesting to examine is the articulation between those economic forces that are very real and affecting China and the cultural dimensions that create a whole separate value system outside the economy—a system for the economic forces to feed off. And it’s precisely this synergy between the economic value and the cultural value that really makes resources such as rosewood boom; it’s what makes them highly speculative commodities. So, what we should be talking about is the intersection between cultural and economic elements and not arguing about whether the demand is based on tradition versus neoliberal or economic. It is truly both. Without one or the other, it would not be nearly as powerful.

Historically, we see this type of hybrid, cultural/economic speculation in Western art: Picassos, Pollocks, and so forth. But now—since the mid 2000s—we see it in distinctly Chinese cultural things as well. It’s the same type of economic speculation feeding off cultural values, but it’s in a totally different cultural milieu and cultural history than that of Western art and antiques. And it has a huge impact on demand for endangered species in China.

JD: I would love to turn to your history chapter. I was impressed by its detail and how you connected it to the present in a way that feels quite approachable to people who perhaps have read very little Chinese history, especially on the imperial legacy of rosewood. You write that the story of rosewood in China began centuries ago; it has been written through the Qing and Ming dynasties and the Cultural Revolution. Can you share why this is so important for your book, and explain how, as you suggest, rosewood reflects a history of China?

ALZ: When I started my research, I was very focused on the Madagascar side of things and only a bit later I began my research in China. I’m not at all a historian, and when I turned to researching China, I knew very little. I learned about Chinese history through learning about the history of rosewood in China and I realised that it was a surprisingly good way to learn about Chinese history because so many pivotal moments are encapsulated in it. In the book, I go through them: the infatuation with rosewood during late imperial China—a time that represents a certain idealised zenith of Chinese traditional culture in the contemporary imagination; then the complete scorn and abandonment of this tradition during the Cultural Revolution; and then the return to it alongside China’s global reintegration. The value of rosewood inverted dramatically throughout these key moments in Chinese history. So, the history of rosewood in China is a really good lens for understanding the history of China generally.

I really must give credit to my husband for this idea of thinking about rosewood in this way. I remember early on, just after returning from Madagascar, I was asking him (he was born in Shanghai and much of his family is still living there, themselves owning rosewood furniture) why he thought the wood was so expensive. It’s not necessarily of a higher quality than other woods that are worth much less. And then he began to explain that it’s not just the wood, that the wood is associated with a specific cultural legacy of a specific type of furniture-making and that’s the value of it: the combination of that wood with this whole cultural legacy. That’s why it’s so valuable. And I was like: ‘Tell me more about that!’ And I just did not know any of these things, because I was approaching it like a conservationist would approach it. I had very little context for what something like the Ming Dynasty means in relation to rosewood. For that matter, I had very little context for what Chinese history writ large means for the present moment in China. Really, to understand Global China today, the history of the country, the history of this ‘civilisation-state’, is immensely important. It was easier for me, and it will be the same for people reading this book, to get into the history by looking at the material and the craft. It’s an easier way to distil a very complex history to understand how it matters for our contemporary world.

Unfinished rosewood chairs at a furniture factory in Shenzhen, China. PC: George Zhu.

JD: You write that rosewood, ‘as a conflicted global resource, tells us exactly what we expect to hear about natural resource extraction and struggles over land: East versus West battling it out in the resource-rich “Third World.” But if we listen very carefully, it also tells us the opposite’ (p. 14). Can you tell us about your process of listening more closely and what was revealed through the rosewood story in Madagascar and China?

ALZ: Rosewood—not in the story I tell, but what you will hear in the media—is your stereotypical endangered species: Europeans wiped out most of it, then they learned better and stopped, and now the Asians are wiping out what is left. This is what we expect to hear about resource extraction and endangered species, especially when it comes to China. I try to tell a different story. And I do this by listening closely to the stories of rosewood that arise outside Western media and outside conservation discourse. Listening to stories about rosewood in China and Madagascar, what you will hear is completely different. In China, it is about the cultural history of the wood and newfound wealth, and in Madagascar it is about fleeting new economic opportunities and loss of control of one’s resources. Listening closely, for me, is one way to decentre our own perspectives, to get outside our comfort zone. We don’t do that nearly enough when it comes to China and environmental problems in Madagascar.

JD: In the book, you note that the term ‘endangered species’ does not translate to plants or trees in Malagasy but only to animals. How do local people talk and think about rosewood? Can you speak about the local readings of the tree?

ALZ: Translating ‘endangered species’ is difficult in Malagasy. One common translation is biby efa ho lany teranaka—‘animals about to become extinct’ or, as someone put it to me, an animal whose generation will soon ‘run out’. Calling rosewood an endangered species in this way will probably make many Malagasy people think you are crazy—first, because it’s not an animal and, second, because the younger (not commercially viable) trees are quite easy to find. So, of course, local people don’t talk about rosewood as an endangered species. Historically, they don’t really talk about rosewood much at all outside colonial logging.

When I started my research, I really wanted to uncover some good stories from Malagasy people about folklore concerning rosewood. But there was very little because, primarily, they do not use the tree very much because it is so heavy. They do not want to lug it from the forest. The most interesting story I came across was someone telling me they overheard another person on a bus insisting that Jesus Christ’s cross was made of rosewood, referring to rosewood from Madagascar specifically. But this is not an old or well-known story; the person who told it to me dismissed it as probably the ravings of a madman (although he was intrigued and wanted to know if I’d ever heard such a thing). These types of stories arise during logging booms. There are also speculations about what rosewood really is used for; why is it so expensive? Some hypothesise it has medicinal qualities (and, here, this is another local use of the tree: people in the area drink water mixed with rosewood sawdust as a remedy for upset stomachs. I tried some and it’s disgusting!). Others just call it a famous tree. But aside from that, the trees do not occupy a huge space in local folklore. It’s mostly considered (alongside vanilla, cloves, and other cash crops of the region) primarily for outsiders and they are not entirely sure what it will be used for once it leaves Madagascar.

JD: In the introduction, you offer the image of two trails running parallel in the forest as a representation of the divergent global demands and values of rosewood. How did you arrive at these paths in your work and trajectory, and how do they help us better understand Global China as a product of tensions?

ALZ: This image was something one of my interviewees shared with me. He made it very clear for me to understand: there are two trails in the park he worked in. One he goes on with the tourists. Another is for the loggers. They don’t mix them up; he can’t take the tourists on the logging trails and the loggers can’t come looking for trees on the tourist trails. I thought about it metaphorically when he told me and got very inspired, but he insisted to me it was quite literal. In the book, I try to extend the metaphor and reflect on it personally. I initially approached the case of rosewood from a conservation perspective. I was very much on the tourist trail, both figuratively and (at least once) literally. But after I started my PhD and went back to do my research, I began seeing things from the logging perspective and jumping over to that trail. This inevitably led me to China and the whole investigation on the demand side. And at that point I realised that before I was looking at the issue from just one perspective, and so are many others. And that to a certain extent explains why we are where we are with the tree, why conservation has not been a success when it comes to rosewood. Why people in Madagascar are not particularly gung-ho about conserving it. And, certainly, why people in China have other plans for rosewood and are a bit wary of Western efforts to conserve it. So, this was all very much personal. I was seeing my own ignorance and it was fascinating. I really wanted to share that in the book.

JD: How did you experience and see the rosewood boom in Madagascar? Who are the loggers and how are they connected to the global trade?

ALZ: I interviewed a lot of loggers and traders and I saw some of the logs in transit. But more than that, I saw the impacts of the logging boom on the villages and cities nearby. New houses were being built, with people claiming the money all came from rosewood. Small parties were frequently held on the streets by the rosewood bosses. Any tall concrete fences that were built were rumoured to be hiding rosewood on the other side. The trade caused a lot of inflation in the region and those not involved were fed up with it. The local bus stopped running and was allegedly repurposed into a rosewood transport vehicle. Teachers left their posts to join the trade. It had all the hallmarks—the positives and negatives—of any resource boom. This includes the vastly uneven structure, where loggers on the ground make relatively little (although still a lot, given the lack of other economic opportunities), the mid-level traders make a sizeable portion more, and the bosses who have ties to China become multimillionaires, some potentially billionaires.

A craftsman saws a rosewood branch in northeastern Madagascar. PC: George Zhu.

JD: China’s approaches to endangered species and reforestation provide alternative ecological visions that could appeal to people who do not share a Western fixation with conservation or preservation. It struck me that China’s rosewood plantations seem to be highly desirable to people in Madagascar, as opposed to more protectionist or militarised forms of conservation. At the same time, Western conservation efforts are still very much at play. How do local people reconcile and/or engage with the two? Did communities end up adopting any of the imported perspectives (for example, conservation or working with companies on extraction)?

ALZ: Like the two trails—the tourist trails and the logging trails—both are at play in Madagascar. We see both conservation and logging right next to each other. Rosewood plantations are an interesting third element, a type of hybrid between the two. It’s sort of conservation and it’s sort of logging. Not all the trees planted will be logged and there is an idea of sustainability (at least in the sense of longevity) behind it. But there are not enough rosewood plantations in Madagascar—only a few private plantations established by rich Chinese-Malagasy people. Instead, a lot of people work on both the conservation and the logging sides. One of my main interlocutors had worked as both a conservation worker (as an ecotourist guide) and a logger. And he would joke that he was bad at both! He said that as a guide he could never find the animals for the tourists to see. And as a logger he was scrawny, so not particularly good at that either.

In general, I found two perspectives on conservation from people in the region. The first was from those who are wary of the whole conservation drive from Western donors. Some think it is entirely made up. One of my friends said that the whole endangered species concept was just created to control Malagasy people and prevent them from using their own resources. But then there is another perspective coming from the region, mostly those who work more closely with the conservation organisations, and they genuinely believe in it. They affirm that we need to protect species and that it is good for their country and their communities. So, both are there, although the first is probably more prevalent.

JD: I really enjoyed your chapter on ‘hot money’. Can you tell us more about the impacts of this phenomenon, the influx of capital, and the boom-and-bust cycles in the region?

ALZ: Rosewood—and also vanilla, the other major export crop of the region—is a highly volatile economy. There are periods of huge influxes of cash and then it all dries up. The volatility is also relatively new. When rosewood was logged during the colonial period and after it was a bit more stable. The booms since 2000 are much more volatile, not only because of volatile speculative markets but also because of selective/inconsistent military deployment to uphold logging bans. So, with these boom-and-bust cycles, we get this phenomenon that Malagasy people call ‘hot money’ (or vola mafana). It’s when workers spend all their earnings in one egregious spree. These can be conventional: trips to the bars, bidding on women, and so forth, but also more creative, like pasting money to chameleons or boiling it up and eating it as soup.

On some level, hot money in Madagascar is a Global China story; it’s about Chinese traders coming out and buying wood from Madagascar in large quantities for large sums of cash, and the reverberations of this demand outside China. It’s interesting that all this excess capital fuelling the rosewood boom in China is also called ‘hot money’. This is hot money in the global financial sense: excess capital flows being channelled quickly from one market to another to exploit variable rates of return. Hot money in Madagascar shows the other side of this global financial speculation, how it manifests in places where paper money is still the default and banks are days away and not really used anyway. Hot money in China and hot money in Madagascar are two sides of the same coin.

JD: How do you think about using ethnography to study Global China at this moment and why is it an important method?

ALZ: In popular discourse when you’re talking about China and our connections with China, it’s primarily economic and geopolitical: trade, finance, security. That is how the West is tied to China, while on the cultural level there’s a huge disconnect—a remarkable disconnect for how economically connected we are. But Global China is both cultural and economic. We need to understand it through both dimensions, which means, of course, we have to do ethnography. And I think specifically how Anna Tsing defines ethnography—thinking about an issue with your informants, with your interlocutors—is great for this type of problem. This cultural disconnect between China and the West, where economically we are so connected and culturally so disconnected, can be eased a bit by doing this type of ethnography. For rosewood, we can see how the same material reality is considered so differently from different perspectives.

JD: Trying to straddle multiple places and study a global phenomenon on the ground are not straightforward tasks. Something I love about this book is that your ethnography takes place in Madagascar and in China. Why did you feel that going to China was an important part of your work?

ALZ: It was essential for this story. Maybe some other Global China stories might not need this. But for understanding rosewood and what it means to different people, going to China, talking to people living and working in China, were essential. Also, it really helped to be married to a Chinese person, especially one who is very blunt about pointing out my own ignorance and limited perspective.

But I also have to emphasise that the story I tell in the book is not what a Chinese or Malagasy person would tell about rosewood. It’s very much about a Western person coming to understand different points of view concerning the same topic, the same material thing. It’s about trying to convey that and, in the process, decentring or destabilising the Western perspective a bit. The ultimate goal is to have my audience, which is no doubt largely Western, reflect on their own positionality.

JD: You write: ‘There is a growing environmentalism in China, but it is not the environmentalism of the West’ (p. 24). There has been mounting pressure on Chinese leaders to address environmental problems. On one hand, environmental reforms in China frequently are used to pursue a political agenda or bolster political legitimacy. On the other, there is an earnest attempt to push environmental agendas. How do you understand China’s emerging environmentalism and how, in your experience, does it vary domestically versus internationally?

ALZ: This is tough. There is, like you say, precisely this environmental turn in China. However, for most people, I’d say there is surprisingly little awareness of this. When I ask students, for example, ‘When you think about China and the environment, what comes to mind?’, almost nothing is positive. So, the audience that sees China’s environmental turn is still surprisingly small … Then, among those people who do see it, it’s often framed as having ulterior motives: environmentalism as a guise for political control. This may be true, but it’s not just that, it’s not all just for political control. There is a sincere desire from Chinese people to clean up the environment. The government is responding to the demands of the people (and, yes, sure, consolidating further control where possible). So, it’s not even that Chinese leadership deeply ‘cares’ about the environment, but they are responding to legitimate demands from the people who are calling for a cleanup. And that’s fine. That’s a government remaining accountable to a people. I tend to be wary of questions and critiques that arise, like: ‘But do they truly care about the environment?’ What that question insinuates is: ‘Do they have the same particular type of romanticised view of the environment as I do?’ And this view is quite Western. So likely, no, most Chinese people do not have the same romanticised view of the environment, but they have some other environmentalism that is emerging and needs to be understood in its own right.

But, again, going back to your question, it’s tough—and very controversial—to enumerate in any definitive way what one might call ‘Chinese environmentalism’. In the book, I try to point readers in a few directions that really are clear differences between how China and the West approach the environment. The most important one I have found is the valuation of pristine, human-less nature. Ideas of wilderness and untouched nature are very powerful to Western audiences and simply do not have the same allure in China. This is a consequence of much larger philosophical differences that I discuss more in the book. China’s approach to the environment is historically rooted not in the Western nature/culture opposition but rather in a philosophical tradition that does not so sharply delineate nature from culture. This has impacts for how Chinese people think about the environment and how the government implements environmental policies domestically and abroad.

Last, just to touch on the question of differences between China’s domestic and China’s international approaches to the environment, they are very different, for several reasons, one of which is how China runs its foreign relations. A big debate about Chinese environmentalism is that domestically they are beginning to have strong environmental policies, but overseas projects barely see it. The Chinese Government did pledge to stop funding coal projects overseas, which was a big deal. I was a bit surprised about that. But that aside, there are clear critiques that the Chinese Government has strong environmental regulations domestically but not abroad. This is largely true, but we also need to understand that a lot of this has to do with, first, China’s lack of capacity to regulate overseas activities and, second, the country’s longstanding approach of non-intervention in foreign diplomacy. This non-interventionist approach is a defining difference between Chinese and Western diplomacy and China really prides itself on this distinction. The Chinese Government really showcases this distinction, especially in Africa, as evidence of why they are preferable partners to the West. It’s how the Chinese Government distinguishes how they do aid from the West—in their eyes, in a very positive way because it is less paternalistic, and they are not going to get rid of that anytime soon.

JD: You analyse rosewood as a socionature to cut through the nature/culture divide that you mentioned and which dominates global imaginaries of rosewood. First, the frame ‘socionatures’ could be unfamiliar to some readers; can you explain what you mean by it? How does this help us understand Global China and shifting global environmentalism?

ALZ: What’s powerful about the socionature concept is that it challenges and multiplies our understanding of rosewood. Stepping back, anything can be a socionature. It’s really an approach to analysing a particular resource, meaning that you’re going to analyse it not as a natural object, nor as a social object, but really where those two elements come together and how that impacts how the resource is governed, used, and valued. When it comes to rosewood, the wood is a rich text socionaturally speaking. It’s a rich meeting point of so-called natural understandings of conservation and endangered species, and then cultural understandings of Chinese history. In this you see that the natural understandings of the environment are not really ‘natural’; they are in fact quite cultural. By taking a socionatural approach, we can remove the arbitrary binary between approaching something as natural versus social or cultural and this is very important as we try to have some semblance of an environmentalism at the global level that is not just predominantly Western.

JD: You mention that you do not want to legitimate the rosewood trade. This makes me think of the challenges of how to study Global China and tack between China and other sites, while sharing multiple perspectives and experiences. I wonder, in telling multiple sides to the rosewood story, if you have been pushed to ‘take a harder stance on China’. And if so, how you navigate such critiques?

ALZ: Oh, I get that all the time: ‘You’re pro-China.’ And I’m like: ‘You don’t know what pro-China looks like.’ Having some glimpses of what pro-China looks like myself, I would say I’m far from it. But I am quite sympathetic to Chinese perspectives that support rosewood craftsmanship, for example, or that support the Chinese Government and its environmental actions—or at least I am actively trying to be sympathetic to these perspectives. When you’re trying to understand where a whole other group is coming from, you really need to cast judgements aside. You have to try as much as possible to come at it with an open mind. But even then, it can be very limited. I am a very Western person. I grew up in the United States in the 1990s, and I’m like the extreme American in some ways. So, trying to see it from another perspective is difficult and, as I said, the story I tell about rosewood is still very Western, but it attempts a type of decentring. So, yes, I get the being soft on China criticism a lot.

It did help looking at Madagascar, because it made my approach less East versus West and instead more about different perspectives coalescing around this particular tree. And when trying to see things from the Malagasy perspective, you get glimpses of how bizarre and annoying they must find the Western approach to conservation. The drive to protect nature apart from humans is in many ways uniquely Western and is being imposed on people who do not share those views or beliefs. There is value in decentring this perspective, not just a comparison between China and the West, but having a more pluralised account. And then you see the peculiarities that arise around Western approaches to the environment from multiple perspectives.

JD: Your conclusion brilliantly reflects on the broader stakes of China’s global rise. How do you conceptualise Global China and how should we go about, in your words, ‘discovering Global China’? Finally, who do you hope will read your book and understand these more nuanced perspectives?

ALZ: China, as a global actor, is fascinating to me because it is the first time in the past two centuries we see a non-Western actor with global aspirations that arguably surpass those of the West. And what this does is it makes us reflect on what it really means to be global. For as long as I’ve lived, to be global in effect meant to be Western. No-one ever said it like that, but there was a kind of tacit conflation between the Western and the global. We don’t necessarily realise that we conflate them, but in fact, we do. I like to think of the example of the Bretton Woods institutions—the most global institutions one could imagine. And yet we forget their provincial origins in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire—a small resort town in East Coast America during an unprecedented postwar period when the United States and, to a lesser extent, war-torn Europe basically set the global agenda.

The point I try to make in concluding the book is that Global China challenges this tacit conflation we have made all along that Western is global and global is Western. And so, we have to rethink what it really means to be global. This destabilisation or disruption—dissociating the Western and the global—also allows for a sort of self-reflection. It’s not even necessarily about better understanding China, but it’s about shedding light on the hidden structures that shape Western thinking about the world and provincialising them. It’s about realising what we may take as universal is in fact not at all. So, in discovering what this thing called Global China is, we simultaneously discover that how we in the West conceptualise the global (or health, or science, or the environment, or nature) is after all not as universal as we thought. So, I want to destabilise our understanding and then reflect on what is the ‘global’ really? Are these things we call ‘global’ really global or are they actually just very provincial and Western?

With this in mind, there are two audiences I would like to read this book, one of which may not like it at all. First, I would like the conservation groups and global conservation people—really the people who work on global protected areas—to read it. But I’m also a bit afraid of that, because I think they will like it least, especially the parts of the book that discuss the unintended consequences of global conservation efforts—how they can sometimes really do more harm than good. They likely won’t agree with several points, but it will be food for thought. The other audience is simply anyone who is thinking about China or stories about China and might be amenable to looking at the country from a different perspective than we usually hear. People who are perhaps a bit tired of the same stories about China pillaging the environment and the world, or at least who want a different perspective on this phenomenon.

JD: I would like to conclude by reflecting on global environmentalism given China’s rise. What implications can we glean from the case of rosewood about the future of environmentalism? How do you think global environmentalism and conservation will and should be re-envisioned?

ALZ: Here we can go back to the repatriation issue. What would it mean for environmental protection in a place like Madagascar to be repatriated? What would a type of repatriated conservation look like? We’ve seen conservation discourse change a lot already and become more community-based or ‘people-centred’. And this is sort of a step in that direction. But with that, conservationists need to think not just about how to include people but also about how to change conservation goals in response to that inclusion. For it to be truly community-based, the very goals of biodiversity conservation and protected areas need to be on the table for revision—maybe these goals change altogether. This possibility is of course difficult for large nongovernmental organisations that have biodiversity conservation as their primary mission. Hence my wariness towards such organisations and my doubts of any type of ‘real’ repatriation.

Then of course there is the even thornier issue of repatriation when it comes to China. As I say in the book, it’s one thing to repatriate conservation efforts to marginalised Malagasy people but quite another to repatriate in the context of a strong, powerful China. We can all feel warm and fuzzy about repatriation to Madagascar, but the sentiment changes when it comes to China. And here it might help to think more in terms of cooperation. How to cooperate with China—a country which some find to be authoritarian, illiberal, even genocidal? This is the challenge of twenty-first-century global environmentalism because there is simply no tackling the environmental problems of our century without collaborating with China. It’s simply not possible. But at the same time, the possibility of global collaboration, even as I say it now, sounds painfully naive. So, this is where we are. We are stuck doubling down on our own isolated positions. My hope is that the book can help us decentre our positions just a little. Decentring here means seeing how, from a Western perspective, the idea of valuing untouched wilderness—the ‘nature needs half’ movement to cordon off half the world as protected areas that can’t be developed, and so forth—is not universally appealing or desirable, but highly situated. And we need to be much more decentred and open-minded and willing to accept that the world we in the West romanticise is not the world other cultures romanticise and, frankly, not likely to be our future world. Our future world is going to be much more pluralised and built through sobering compromise rather than romantic ideals. Decentring a Western perspective is perhaps our best shot at realising these radical compromises necessary for avoiding global environmental catastrophe.

Jessica DiCarlo is a geographer and the Chevalier Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Transportation and Development in China at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research and School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. She studies global China in Asia from an ethnographic perspective and has worked in Tibet, Nepal, Laos, and India. Her research has been published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Geoforum, Ecology and Society, Area, and Ambio, and she co-edited The Rise of the Infrastructure State (Bristol University Press, 2022).
Annah Lake Zhu is Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, a veteran of the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva, and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar. She is the author of Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China (Harvard University Press, 2022). Her work has been published in Science, Geoforum, Political Geography, World Development, and American Ethnologist.
University of British Columbia / GCP Editor
Assistant Professor at Wageningen University


Volume 1, Issue 2, 2022