The Chinese Government: Environmentalists?

In his remarks to the United States Congress on Tuesday, American President Barack Obama gave the Chinese government some unexpected props:

We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient.

It was a brief comment, and one that may have flown in the face of many Americans’ understanding of China as a land of dirty industrialism and cutting corners. Even hardened expats might be reluctant to give China a lot of credit on the environmentalist front, given the smoke that pours into the air (and, consequently, our lungs) constantly from the nation’s congested roads and sprawling factories.

Still, the government does deserve some credit — perhaps more than the American government — in its attempts to confront these issues, or at the very least its support for those who do. As many sources have reported, environmentalism is increasingly popular among the Chinese populace. Environmentalist groups are (and have been) springing up in colleges and elsewhere and, perhaps surprisingly, they’ve been met with support from the government, sometimes even in instances where their reports condemn state-owned enterprises for violating regulations. The Washington Monthly reported,

Not only is China’s emerging environmental movement tolerated by the central government; for the most part, it’s encouraged. More than 3,000 groups like Green Camel Bell currently operate in China, constituting the largest and most developed segment of the country’s budding civil society. Some NGO leaders are even consulted by government officials and praised by the state-controlled media.

Of course, the Monthly figures there’s no way that the Chinese government would actually be interested in protecting the environment, so there’s an ulterior motive:

The kid-glove treatment China’s environmental activists receive is not a sign that Beijing is willing to relinquish political control. The Communist Party’s agile leaders are well aware of the role that civil society groups have played in the fall of other authoritarian systems. Rather, the government is taking a calculated risk. It is opening space for political participation in the hope of preventing what it sees as an even greater threat: that the country’s rapidly deteriorating environment will imperil China’s vibrant economy—and perhaps, one day, the party’s own hold on power.

Later in the article, they offer another, less cynical theory:

To understand why Chinese officials are genuinely concerned about the country’s growing environmental problems, you must first remember that they live here. Pollution is one by-product of China’s thriving economy that can’t be evaded with influence or cash. One former U.S. Energy Department official told me that his Chinese counterparts rave about the air on visits to Washington, bemoaning Beijing’s bleak skies.

Whatever the reason, clearly the government is concerned about the environment. The recent ban on free plastic shoppping bags has had a noticable effect, at least in people’s behavior: many are bringing their own reusable bags to the supermarkets instead of paying a few extra mao for the plastic ones. But according to the Council on Foreign Relations, larger, more sweeping change has thusfar eluded the central government:

The State Environmental Protection Administration and other relevant agencies have tried to do as much as they can, establishing an extensive legal framework and bureaucratic infrastructure to address environmental concerns. However, China’s environmental bureaucracy is generally weak, and funding and personnel levels remain well below the level necessary merely to keep the situation from deteriorating further. Without greater support from Beijing, the regulatory and enforcement regimes also remain insufficient to support implementation of the best policies or technological fixes.

Much of the burden for environmental protection, therefore, has come to rest outside of Beijing and the central government apparatus. Responsibility has been decentralized to the local level, with some wealthier regions under proactive mayors moving aggressively to tackle their own environmental needs, while other cities and towns lag far behind. The government has also encouraged public participation in environmental protection, opening the door to non-governmental organizations and the media, who have become an important force for change in some sectors of environmental protection. The international community-through bilateral assistance, non-governmental organizations, international governmental organizations, and most recently, multinationals-has also been a powerful force in shaping China’s environmental practices.

Although there are always those who prefer to see China as a coal-consuming, environment murdering menace, it seems clear that the Chinese government is at least interested in the environment, and even willing to engage in some dialogue with private groups and citizens about environmental policy. From the look of Obama’s speech, so is the new US administration.

Citizens of both China and America may find some comfort in this, although they’d likely find more had either government been prepared to engage with these issues twenty years ago.

Also Related to this Article but not easily implemented into the flow of the piece is this point from Yale Global Online:

For all its global inspiration, environmentalism in China is not a just a copycat movement. For Chinese environmentalists, one local aspiration is to ground the global discourse of sustainable development in eastern philosophical traditions such as Buddhism and Daoism. These traditions stress the harmony between humans and nature, reject human-centered approaches to the environment, and admonish humility before nature. These ideas bring global ecological thinking closer home.

A (Nearly) Forgotten Anniversary

2009 is a year of anniversaries for China. It’s been 60 years since the formation of the modern People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party’s formal ascent to power, an event sure to be lauded by the current regime and is to include the country’s biggest military parade ever and even a motion picture. Other anniversaries are less welcomed; 50 years ago, a revolt rocked Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he’s been a thorn in the CCP’s side ever since. Even more clouded in controversy is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre that loom this coming summer. Amid all of this is a forgotten anniversary that few will note in China: 30 years ago in 1979, China invaded Vietnam.

The Sino-Vietnamese War (known in Chinese as 中越战争) is the culmination of a long string of modern tragedies for Vietnam, starting with the French occupation in the 19th and early 20th centuries to a brutal Japanese invasion during WWII and a civil war and bitter guerrilla fighting with the United States in the 1960s and 70s. The war is but the most recent installment of a thousands-of-year-struggle between Vietnam and its massive neighbor the north. On February 17, 1979 China invaded on the pretense of punishing Vietnam for toppling the government of its ally Pol Pot, the brutal Cambodian dictator, and for abuses against ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. Many observers cite deeper geo-political goals, such as exposing the Soviet Union’s unwillingness to come to the military aid of Vietnam and to convince the United States that China was able and willing to curb Soviet expansion.

By mid-March the PLA, hampered by archaic equipment and command structures and no match for the battle-hardened Vietnamese army, in true Orwellian style declared victory, packed up its bags and went home, leaving behind as many as 20,000 of their comrades dead in northern Vietnam. Estimates for Vietnamese casualties vary, but the Chinese employed a scorched-earth policy on their way back north, thus ensuring that the war would, at least for some, last long after the last Chinese soldier left Vietnam. Low-level border conflicts continued well into the 1980s.

In Vietnam, the war is far from forgotten. In fact, a large section of the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is devoted to the Sino-Vietnamese War. But in today’s China, the story is different. Reliable information about the so-called Chinese “victory” in Vietnam is hard to come by on the mainland. The war is a sore point for the PRC government and books and articles on the topic are almost never published, even when written by the veterans themselves. The war isn’t included in school curriculum and many young Chinese don’t even know the war happened at all.

Perhaps this would all be par for the course if not for the fact that all this silence exists side by side with vocal outrage over Japanese textbooks that are silent on Japanese atrocities committed during WWII. While the Chinese government is more than willing to harp on Japan for its war crimes, an awkward and telling silence exists over the topic of China’s own misadventure in Vietnam. In fact, some go so far as to claim that China has never invaded another country.

An opportunity exists here for China. Raising awareness of the truth regarding the Sino-Vietnamese War, far from drawing criticism from the international community, instead would be an excellent and cheap way for China to gain praise for making steps towards greater transparency. Another benefit sure to appeal to those in power is the chance to gain the moral high-ground on other fronts, shaming Japan into coming to terms with its own atrocities.

Anniversaries can have a special power over an emotionally charged people, as the PRC surely knows. Rather than focusing on crackdowns and protests, China should take steps forward to clear the record regarding a 30-year old mistake. China itself stands to gain the most.

by Chris Hearne

Our Three Week Hiatus

UPDATE: CCTV building in Beijing caught fire last night. No time to write about this in more detail, check Shanghaiist, ChinaSMACK, CNReviews, and Youku Buzz. The cause is unclear but looks to be stray fireworks from the holiday last night. China Daily has a story here indicating it was a hotel…

It probably bodes poorly for this young blog, but we’ll be taking a three week hiatus because I’ll be traveling for the next three weeks (Chengdu, Xi’an, Luoyang, Zhengzhou, Kaifeng) and none of you have offered to help yet. There may be some updates during that time, but our near-daily posting schedule will resume March 2.

In the meantime, we’d like to call your attention to some things. First, I’d like to thank all the respectable China blogs that have linked here even though the blog is extremely new. EastSouthNorthWest has linked us several times. The Wall Street Journal’s China blog linked us, as did Global Voices Online, and Mutant Palm, among others. The traffic you’ve directed this way is the lifeblood of this still-nascent operation.

I’d also like to thank all the commenters who have chimed in, and would encourage them to keep doing so in the future.

So, what can you do while we’re not posting so often. Well, check out our list of recommended sites to see if there are any China blogs missing from your RSS feed. Browse our archives, which date back to Jan 10 and include some worthwhile stuff that has been overlooked, I think. Check out our store and buy a t-shirt.

Or write something for the site and email it to me (custerc at gmail dot com). I’ll be checking my email every few days and would love to post some guest pieces from the road if anyone is at all interested.

I wish you all a happy February, we’ll see you again in March.

The Worst Drought in 50 Years

Northeastern China is suffering from what even the Chinese media are calling “the most severe drought for decades.” Affecting nearly 5 million people to date, the drought also threatens future harvests and has drawn a number of government responses including diverting water from the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers, inducing rain artificially, providing over US $12 billion in subsidies to farmers, and sending Premier Wen Jiabao into the fields with a hose.

What’s more interesting to some people, though, is why this suddenly became a story. A quick search of China Daily‘s archives reveals precious few stories on the drought before a couple days ago, even though today it’s headline news (as it has been for the past few days). What gives? Blogger Black and White Cat is wondering too:

Droughts aren’t like most other kinds of disaster. They don’t usually happen overnight. […] So what about this drought in northern China that finally became news these last few days? It’s supposed to be the worst drought in the region for half a century and it’s suddenly very big news indeed. But, surely, for it to become the worst for 50-odd years, didn’t it have to pass through other “worst since” milestones? Wouldn’t there have been a point when it was the worst for a decade? When did it reach that point? Isn’t something that happens once in a decade news? What about when it became the worst for two decades? Or three? Or four? Who decided that a five-decade record was finally a big enough story to justify reporting it?

Some people might suggest that a problem is only news in China when the government says what splendid job it’s doing dealing with it. But surely not.

Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Also of interest today:
Wen Jiabao Urges Cambridge to Forgive Shoe Thrower (China Daily, also check out our coverage of the shoe throwing incident)

Would You Break the Law for This Woman?

According to ESWN, lots of Chinese people apparently would. Lu Jiali, reportedly the mistress of some of Shanghai’s highest officials (many of whom are now embroiled in a scandal), is an attractive woman (88% of netizens polled agree!). Photos of her (after the jump) have been circulating the internet recently, which led to an opinion poll: “If you were a government official, would you break the law for the sake of Lu Jiali?”

55% of respondents indicated that yes, they would break the law for her. 30% said they wouldn’t, and 15% said they weren’t sure. ESWN reports one netizen commented: “When I saw the results, I am speechless — are there any good men left in the world?” It is a bit distressing, on the other hand, is anyone really surprised? Certainly, it seems like if officials themselves were polled, an awful lot of them would say yes, too. Looking at the original article, another netizen engaged in some in-depth analysis of the photographs’ symbolism:

“The background shows a derelict fishing boat, and a submerged reef. How creative, the metaphorical meaning is that these officials are just a boat used to “catch fish” which will collide with the reef. But in the end, she will make it ashore. You can look at the pictures and see it, this woman is really remarkable.” Another netizen wrote: “Being an official is really great, one can enjoy this kind of top-class beauty!”

Others felt the news was nothing to write home about: “Almost everyone knows officials have mistresses,” one netizen wrote; apparently 94% of those polled felt that officials having mistresses was “extremely common.”

The Useless Tree has also picked up the story, pointing out that Confucius had something to say about all this: “It is a rare man who would turn his mind to virtue when he could follow love instead.” (Analects 15.13) and “The Master said: “I’ve never seen anyone for whom loving Integrity is like loving a beautiful woman.” (Analects 9.8)

Also of interest today: Mutant Palm has posted a page containing links to several archives of historical Chinese photos, and plans to continue updating it as new archives become available. Historians, start your engines!

Was the Sichuan Earthquake Caused by Man?

The New York Times thinks maybe: (h/t James Fallows)

Nearly nine months after a devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, China, left 80,000 people dead or missing, a growing number of American and Chinese scientists are suggesting that the calamity was triggered by a four-year-old reservoir built close to the earthquake’s geological fault line.

A Columbia University scientist who studied the quake has said that it may have been triggered by the weight of 320 million tons of water in the Zipingpu Reservoir less than a mile from a well-known major fault. His conclusions, presented to the American Geophysical Union in December, coincide with a new finding by Chinese geophysicists that the dam caused significant seismic changes before the earthquake.

Scientists emphasize that the link between the dam and the failure of the fault has not been conclusively proved, and that even if the dam acted as a trigger, it would only have hastened a quake that would have occurred at some point.

How has the Chinese media responded to this? James Fallows wanted to know, so Mutant Palm answered. You can go to that site for a full translation of the article, but frankly the title sums it up pretty well: “Foreign Media Stir Up Trouble, Speculate ‘Sichuan Earthquake was Man-Made’.”

Things really get interesting in the comments, though. A commenter called “eswn” (I think we can assume this is Roland Soong of EastSouthWestNorth) posted this link (in Chinese), which apparently brings to light some misrepresentation of data intended to make it look like the reservoir had more influence than it did. Commenter DJ posted this link from the same site. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to access either of them at the moment (have they been harmonized?), but if access becomes available I will check them out and report back.

Interestingly, DJ also pointed out that this isn’t exactly a new theory, linking to this article about it that was published a mere ten days after the earthquake. Sorry New York Times, I think you got scooped on this one.

The original Chinese article about the theory appears to be fairly straightforward, noting that authorities denied any connection but that some geologists felt the possibility should not be overlooked. It then reprints information from interview with Fan Xiao, a chief engineer for the geological investigative team. Fan Xiao is also the person the “eswn” commenter accused of misrepresenting data, and according to the article, he had written articles opposing the opening of the Zipingpu Reservoir. In the interview, he said:

Fan Xiao: I didn’t just oppose the construction of the Zipingpu Reservoir. On the main stream of the Min River there are ten major reservoirs, if you count the major tributaries then there are 29, if you count the minor streams then there are even more. These reservoirs are, step by step, obstructing the entire river. This leaves no room for [the river to] open up; there are many problems with the model. We do geology and the environment; in this kind of model the geological hazard is quite large.

Reporter: And why is that?

Fan Xiao: This area is also a fault line. This time there was an 8.0 level earthquake, actually in the past there have been many earthquakes here, it’s just that the level was not so high. Especially Wenchuan, in that are earthquakes around 7.0 are quite common.

Interestingly, according to Fan Xiao (who, at the time of the writing of that article, was not willing to draw any formal conclusions but said he was very worried the quake had been caused by the reservoir), “there are many examples of reservoirs causing earthquakes, on the basis of analyzing the situation, the Zipingpu Reservoir has all the conditions needed to cause an earthquake […] but whether it could cause an earthquake at as high a level as 8.0, we still need to leave a question mark after that, there needs to be lots of data to explain it.”

So who is telling the truth? It’s not entirely clear. A quick web search seems to indicate that generally speaking, many people believe it is possible for earthquakes to be caused by reservoirs, but I’m no geologist. Perhaps some astute commenters (or some commenters with uncensored internet access) can help us out…

UPDATE: For an extremely thorough treatment of the subject including a variety of Western and Chinese articles as well as statistical analysis that puts this site to shame, check EastSouthWestNorth. The Fan Xiao information and translation of Chinese articles are near the bottom.

Also Interesting: Evan Osnos of the New Yorker: “His [Fan Xiao’s] findings and related conclusions by Columbia University scientists are not definitive, but, as they circulate in the West, they remain, so far, absent from the Chinese press, as far as I have seen.” Evan: See links above.

What the Hell Does “Crackdown” Mean?

If you’re reading this post right now, chances are this isn’t the first thing you’ve read about China in English. And if this isn’t the first thing you’ve read about China in English, you’ve probably read about a Chinese government “crackdown” before.

But what, exactly, does it mean when the Chinese government cracks down? The term was likely initially popularized through its frequent use to describe the government’s response to the protesters in Tiananmen in 1989. To many people, when they hear about a Chinese government “crackdown“, it conjures images of tanks rolling into the Square, toppling the goddess of democracy while soldiers execute peaceful protesters trying to escape the mayhem.

Yet, the term crackdown gets thrown around a lot. Recently, the Chinese government “cracked down” on pornographic websites. There’s apparently a “severe crackdown” on Uighurs in Xinjiang, and there’s a “crackdown” going on in Tibet too, in fact, multiple “crackdowns“. Christan leaders in China are concerned a “crackdown” might be imminent. There’s a “crackdown” on Falun Gong practitioners, and a “crackdown” in intellectual property rights violations.

The problem is that there’s no clear meaning for the term. As indicated above, it gets thrown around to describe a wide variety of government activities. Sometimes, its intended meaning is spelled out later in the article through specifics, but even when that’s the case, someone reading about a ‘severe crackdown’ in Tibet is probably going to think what that phrase indicates is violence, not the arrest of 40-odd people in a province with a population of over 2.7 million.

Often, though, there’s no further explanation anyway. The Amnesty International report linked above cites a “severe crackdown” on Uighurs but doesn’t elaborate at all on what, exactly, the “crackdown” entails. Does that mean they’re forcing Uighurs to speak Mandarin more, or executing them in the street? It’s not clear, but that seems like a pretty important distinction to make, and it’s not fair to expect that your readers are going to be willing to do the digging and figure out what crackdown means this time.

Let us here at ChinaGeeks be the first to declare a crackdown on “crackdown”. It’s a vague word that carries with it historical implications (for many readers) that distort its intended meaning, and it’s used far too often. A quick search of Google News turns up 2,696 responses for “China crackdown”. That’s nearly half the number of responses that come up when you search for “China politics” (5,762)! For every two stories about politics in China, apparently, there’s a story about a crackdown.

Please, let’s decide once and for all what “crackdown” actually means, or stop using it altogether. Its current “meaning” is too broad, too vague, and only feeds into the popular Western belief that everything the Chinese government does can and should be compared to Tiananmen, 1989.