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Epilogue The Environmental Challenge in the 21st Centurylocked

Epilogue The Environmental Challenge in the 21st Centurylocked

  • Daniel K. Gardner
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How Serious Is China Today About Addressing Its Environmental Problems?

In the late 1970s, just after the death of Chairman Mao (1976), paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched a series of liberal market reforms. Few observers then would have imagined what the next four decades would bring. China’s GDP has grown almost 10% annually since, and its economy is now the second largest in the world. Forty years ago, the single-speed Flying Pigeon bicycle ruled the roads; today, China is the world’s largest car market. And, if 40 years ago, you looked out across the Huangpu River from the Bund in Shanghai, you would have seen farmland and a few warehouses and wharves; now you look up from the Bund and see the stunning, futuristic cityscape of Pudong. The material progress of the past 40 years has been breathtaking—a source of pride for the Chinese people, as well as a source of legitimacy for the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

But that progress has come at great cost to China’s environment and the health of the Chinese people. There are 1.4 million or so premature deaths in China annually owing to ambient air pollution. More than 60% of China’s groundwater and 50% p. 214of the water in the country’s rivers and lakes are classified as “poor” or “very poor.” Some 300 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. And, in a country where arable land is precious, 20% of it is contaminated with heavy metal; some environmentalists say that the actual figure may be as high as 70%.

Public awareness of the pollution crisis has grown. The subject of pollution now gets a lot of airtime in China’s social media. More telling, and certainly more ominous for the ruling Communist Party, has been the rise of environmental protests, as citizens have taken more freely to the streets to express opposition to the building of coal-fired power plants, petrochemical plants, waste incinerators, oil refineries, battery manufacturers, and the like. Environmental protests have increased an average of 29% annually since 1996, and pollution is now the leading cause of social unrest in China.

The year 2013 marks what in the future, I think, will be viewed as a turning point in modern China’s environmental policies and attitudes. Whether driven by an increasing realization of the toll that environmental degradation was taking on the country’s air, water, and land, or of the toll that it was taking on the nation’s GDP (authoritative estimates pegged it at 8–12% of the GDP), or of the toll it was taking on the people’s patience (and thus the ruling party’s legitimacy), China’s leadership in that year promised a new ecological direction for the country. In May, the just-appointed president, Xi Jinping, convened a study session with members of the Politburo on “promoting ecological progress,” promising that China will no longer “sacrifice the environment for temporary economic growth” but “will consciously promote a green, sustainable and low-carbon development pattern” and “carefully balance economic development and environmental protection.”1 A few months later, in November, the Central Committee of the Communist Party met and, echoing Xi Jinping’s words, “vowed to pursue a green and p. 215sustainable path to balanced economic, ecological and social development.”2

With the efficiency that only an authoritarian, one-party state can muster, the government took a number of immediate and decisive steps, no doubt both to give substantive expression to its environmental pledge and to tamp down the people’s growing frustration over the worsening pollution. In 2013, China’s leadership committed $277 billion through the end of 2017 to an air pollution “action plan” and $333 billion to a water pollution “action plan.” In the next year, declaring “war on pollution,” it shuttered hundreds of small and inefficient coal plants, banned the building of new coal-fired power plants in the country’s so-called three key economic regions, and limited the growth of energy-intensive industries (e.g., cement, glass, steel, and aluminum). More recently, in anticipation of the 2015 climate change talks in Paris, it announced plans to cap the nation’s energy consumption nationwide by 2020, “peak” carbon emissions by 2030, introduce a nationwide carbon cap-and-trade program in 2017, and increase the share of non-fossil fuel resources to 20% of its primary energy mix by 2030. Today, China is the world’s largest consumer of wind energy and the world’s second largest consumer of solar energy, and it is by far the world’s largest investor in renewable energy.

How successful China ultimately will be in addressing its environmental crisis, in cleaning up its polluted air, water, and soil, is uncertain. But to doubt the determination with which Beijing is tackling the so-called war on pollution would be a mistake. There exists today a growing awareness, among the leaders and public alike, of just how much is at stake—China’s environment, economy, health, and political and social stability.

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What Is the “Ecological Civilization” Campaign?

With the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, China has pursued an aggressive, no-holds-barred policy of economic development, summed up neatly in the slogan xian wuran hou p. 216zhili (“pollute first, clean up later”). By all accounts, as we have seen throughout this book, China’s economic development has been nothing short of staggering. But so, too, have been the effects on the country’s environment. The “clean up later” stage has apparently now arrived. Chinese leaders and media no longer talk of the “pursuit of growth at all costs.” Since 2013 they have spoken of a new policy, of building an “ecological civilization” (生态文明shengtai wenming), proclaiming that the country’s economic growth must henceforth be balanced by equal concern for protecting the environment and the people’s “quality of life.”3

The campaign is meant to mobilize everyone, the public and government officials alike. To the public the campaign’s message is: “We, the Party, have heard you and are taking every measure possible to ensure your quality of life. But alone we cannot protect the environment against harm from anthropogenic sources; we call on everyone’s ‘legal and orderly’ participation, and also on everyone’s understanding and patience, should efforts to build an ecological civilization slow our country’s economic growth.” To officials—at the national, the provincial, and the local levels—the message is: “In the name of economic growth you have been lax in implementing and enforcing our country’s environmental regulations. Worse still, many of you have been guilty of corruption, taking bribes from polluters. Such laxness and corruption will no longer be tolerated.”

Launching a campaign is one thing but selling it is another, requiring a range of rhetorical strategies. To win support for the Party’s eco-civilization project, officials and state media regularly resort to a language of nationalism, explaining that “industrial civilization”—a civilization that has its roots in the post–Industrial Revolution West—is unworkable in the 21st-century world of strained natural resources and unequal wealth distribution. A “civilization revolution” is required, turning away from today’s outmoded model to a new model that takes account of the inherent value of the natural world, p. 217the reciprocal relationship between nature and humankind, and the obligation humankind has to preserve the planet’s resources for future generations.

And China, the leadership and the media claim, has in its native tradition precisely the cultural resources needed to construct this new civilization in place of “industrial civilization.” As Pan Yue, former Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection, explained: “Ecological thinking is one of the main essences of Chinese traditional civilization, which makes it possible for us to reflect on and transcend the material civilization that has dominated mankind since the Renaissance.”4 More specifically, he maintained that it is the so-called Three Teachings—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—that furnish the conceptual and linguistic resources for constructing a meaningful native-based eco-civilization:

One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature. Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Daoist view of the Dao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society.5

This raises a series of fascinating questions: Can, in fact, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism make a genuine contribution to the development of a “post-industrial” eco-philosophy and eco-civilization, as Pan Yue and others assert? Are the resources they offer more than superficial, or is the reference to them in the campaign just a nationalistic prop to help win people’s cooperation as the state shifts direction and marches into an unsure economic and ecological future? The next couple of decades may offer some answers.

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p. 218As China Aims to Build an Ecological Civilization in the 21st Century, What Are Some of the Challenges It Faces?


Beijing has begun pursuing a policy of aggressive urbanization, aiming to move 250 million people from the countryside to the cities by 2025. The state’s expectation is that by urbanizing, it will promote the growth of the middle class, and that this growing middle class, in turn, will help transform the country’s economy from one based on low-value-added, high-polluting manufactured products, much of it for export, to one based on higher-value products (especially in green and high-tech industries), services, and domestic consumption. Economically, this may be a reasonable policy, but, environmentally, the challenges it poses are considerable. They include urban spread at the expense of arable land; extensive construction of buildings and roadways; higher demand for housing, large appliances, and air conditioning and heating systems; increased use of automobiles; greater consumption of laptops, computers, microwaves, and other electronic goods; and higher concentrations of sewage, wastewater discharge, and solid waste requiring treatment. And then, of course, there is the air pollution that results from urban industry, power plants, cars, transportation sources, housing and utilities, and so forth.

Environmental degradation need not be the inevitable outcome of China’s “hyper-urbanization” policy. It brings with it an opportunity to engage in the thoughtful planning of smart, sustainable, people-friendly cities, with green systems of public transportation, energy-efficient buildings, and communities that intelligently integrate work life, residential life, and recreational life. Such cities could serve as models to the rest of the world, especially developing countries.

A Rising Middle Class and Civil Society

A growing urban, middle class likely means higher levels of consumption—and more pollution. But it also means a p. 219wealthier, better-informed citizenry, more deeply invested in protecting the environment and in safeguarding the health of their families. It is this urban middle class that has already begun taking to social media, and to the streets, to register displeasure with environmental conditions. The targets of displeasure, thus far, have been local, directed at threats posed to the immediate environment by this particular plant or that particular incinerator. If, however, McKinsey’s estimates are accurate, and by 2022 a full 75% of China’s urban households will be middle and upper middle class, we, and leaders in Beijing, might expect a growing civil engagement with the environment, one with the potential to evolve into an organized national movement.6

A growing civil engagement that partners with the government and assists in advancing its goals could be a huge benefit to the ruling party and its environmental efforts. However, a growing engagement that sees the government as ineffectual in addressing the country’s environmental crisis or, still worse, as responsible for generating the crisis can threaten sociopolitical stability, and ultimately the very legitimacy of the Communist Party. If the country’s civil society continues to expand, as is expected, Beijing will continue to face a knotty question: How much latitude should civil society be given in building the country’s ecological civilization?

Climate Change

Climate change, in which, of course, China’s burden of carbon emission plays an increasingly large role, has resulted in a 1°C rise in temperature over the past 40 years. The future promises further warming, with scientists predicting severe consequences for China’s environment: a rise in sea levels, accelerated glacial melt, and an increase in extreme weather events. A rise in sea levels will affect China’s eastern coastal area in particular, which accounts for 40% of the country’s population and 56% of its GDP. The megacities of Shanghai p. 220and Tianjin, with populations of 23 million and 11 million respectively, are thought to be especially vulnerable. According to the Coastal City Flood Vulnerability Index, Shanghai is the most vulnerable city in the world to serious flooding from climate change.7

Mountain glaciers in the Qinghai–Tibet region and the Himalayas are the major source of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, China’s two largest rivers. But these glaciers have shrunk by 15% in the last 30 years alone. Their retreat, scientists argue, threatens to lower river runoff levels, lower groundwater levels, reduce water supplies for drinking and irrigation, and shrink the crop yield. Throw in extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and typhoons, and climate change clearly does not augur well for a healthy Chinese eco-civilization.

International Relations

If the world has become increasingly “globalized,” no place is it more obvious than in matters environmental. The United States and the European Union outsource their manufacturing to China, China dirties its air, and then winds send that air to Korea, Japan, and even the west coast of the United States, where it deposits particulate matter and mercury. China experiences a drought and buys grain on the world commodities market, and the price of bread in Egypt goes up, contributing to political destabilization. A more affluent Chinese population moves from a semi-vegetarian diet to a meat diet, resulting in a greater demand for livestock, but since China does not have adequate land resources to harvest livestock feed, the country imports it (mainly soybeans and maize) from the Amazon, which clears the region’s rainforests to grow it.

Looking ahead, as China weans itself from coal and looks for cleaner sources of energy, it continues to develop hydroelectric power. This, as we know, has meant constructing huge hydropower dams in China’s southwest, at the headwaters of p. 221rivers that flow into other countries—the Lancang (Mekong), the Nu (Salween), and the Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra)—affecting river flow (rate and amount), river ecology, sedimentation, fishing, aquaculture, and agriculture in Southeast Asian countries and India. Turning to a cleaner source of energy may thus prove beneficial to China’s eco-civilization project, but it also makes for tense relations with neighboring countries.

Then there is logging. Since logging has been tied to widespread erosion, desertification, and flooding in the country, the Chinese government has outlawed it. The result: China is now the largest importer of timber in the world, in effect outsourcing its deforestation. And much of that timber, it turns out, is unlawfully cut in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Siberia, and parts of Africa, to the dismay of authorities in these places, and smuggled into China.

China’s pursuit of a new kind of eco-civilization, where economic growth and environmental protection achieve a balanced accord, will have implications beyond its own boundaries. China runs a risk of losing the patience and goodwill of the international community if, in fashioning a healthier, more harmonious society for itself, it appears to ignore the ecological and economic well-being of other countries.

Much is at stake as China attempts to make an “environmental turn” in the 21st century—and not only for China. If today’s economic system is global, even more so is today’s ecological system. Just as manufactured products, technology, food, currency, and the like routinely make their way across countries and continents, so, too, do air and water and the pollutants they carry. When any one country warms the atmosphere with its greenhouse emissions, there is no place on the planet that is not affected. What happens to China environmentally in the 21st century matters deeply—for everyone.