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.

0 thoughts on “The Chinese Government: Environmentalists?”

  1. “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.”
    I feel like this is something some foreigners don’t quite understand about China. The government does care about public opinion. China is not a Stalinist police state and the CCP is sensitive to people’s desires insofar as they affect the Party’s grip on power. Too many people paint the country with a broad brush. If someone doesn’t understand this, they can’t understand the consequences (like steps towards environmental reform).


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