A Chinese Environmental Strategy?
Since March 2015 when the Chinese documentary Under the Dome by Chai Jing and its huge number of reported downloads became globally notorious, the image of China as a major polluter has become well known. Not only is China seen as environmental delinquent on a vast scale, but attempts by the Chinese authorities to close down all discussion on this within the country has become one measure of its authoritarian character.
On the other hand, there is evidence that Chinese authorities were indeed taking the problem of pollution very seriously — as highlighted in speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping and others at the Chinese National People’s Congress in Beijing. The website of the People’s Daily, by far the most powerful state-run newspaper, was one of the first to post the Chai Jing film. However, reasonable voices are yet forced to admit that the Chinese government fears the loss of control that comes from mass open discussions of the environment as well as the seeming high probability that greater attention to the environmental problem would detract from the established focus of the regime on growth and technological transformation.
In contrast, I would argue that the time is now ripe for the Chinese to reap the potentially huge benefits of becoming a world leader in the global environmental movement. The issue is complex, but my own reasoning might be summarized in eight basic claims.
The present economic structure means that China is much more carbon-using than other industrial systems, working at closer to industrial revolution processes involving steel, mining, shipping and transport and large infrastructures requiring much energy input. Nearly 50% of its GDP originates in agriculture and industry, in comparison with 20% for the United States. This quickens the need for structural change and environmental reform.
Secondly, there is a clear need to move much of mainland development from coastal areas, for both its own internal environmental improvement – especially of major cities – and in order to capture through new technologies the large inland surpluses of labour, raw materials, and land.
Third, the need to make the ambitious foreign projects of the Belt and Road schema more environmentally friendly is as imminent, primarily in order to reduce the many political and social problems that have arisen in many regions and projects of the scheme, and the arguments of powerful interests in the United States and Europe as well as Japan that have reasons to either distrust or fear the whole Chinese externalization of its economic growth.
Generally, as a very late developer, China has a dual advantage shared with nations such as India or Brazil – access to the most modern techniques, mostly from the West and Japan but increasingly generated from within their own accumulating knowledge and skill assets; and additionally, most industrial production is now based on post-1980s infrastructure, institutional and production assets, that are not entrenched. Individual enterprises have not been committed to them for many years. In older industrial nations, a reason for sluggish adoptions of best technique is that private enterprises are committed totally to older asset and technology trajectories, and these need to run until they are clearly outdated and inefficient. This is a prime reason for the non-release of new technologies in Western oil and oil-using industries. China can bring on new environmentally advanced techniques with far less antagonism or stasis.
Fifthly, unique amongst great economies, the Chinese state is in an unmatched position both to regulate enterprises so that they conform to basic environmental rulings, and to be awarded accolades for doing so. In other nations, a long process of political and economic bargaining and negotiation – subject to the myriad hesitations of the democratic process – is going to be the prerequisite of any state reformation of private enterprises. But in China, it seems reasonable to suppose that a government-led switch towards environmental imperatives, through planning and contracting and specific legislation, will be more effective.
Again, on its own mainland, China has 1.4 billion of the population of the world’s 7.7 billion. It has everything to gain from an early introduction of solutions to and ameliorations of its domestic environmental problems in the name of almost one-fifth of the world’s people. A present ambition to generate healthy environments alongside economic growth will be rewarded in a future status of being the only nation to reach economic primacy from poverty and then immediately move to an environmentally mindful mode of production. The good health of a huge population is the best assurance of continued development and welfare.
Seventh, China is best placed to run a radical environmental program whilst maintaining growth rates at around 6%, something that cannot even be hazarded for any other very large industrial nation. Fast growth and depreciation of older assets can ensure a continued flow of environmentally superior techniques in both China’s new and imminent industries and in its older established manufactures. This would surely be combined with measures to move production into the Chinese hinterlands and improve the feasibility of Belt and Road projects overseas.
Finally, the combined soft power and commercial power that will be achieved amongst the comity of nations as soon as China embarks firmly and efficiently upon such a program will be both enormous and directly centred upon Chinese governance. China would certainly be in a position to win new allies through the sale of hardware, knowledge, and advice, and technical skills to a range of nations who might not presently be in prime position to adopt advanced environmental renovation techniques in their own countries, but would welcome partnerships in the future.
China now is seen quite unfairly as an environmental pariah, yet in fact, emits around twice the tonnage of carbon dioxide as does the United States but with a population around 5 times as high. In terms of emissions per person, China is measurably superior to the U.S., Russia, Germany, and Japan. In terms of polluted capital cities, Beijing has less annual particulate matter concentration than Cairo, Baghdad, or Brasilia. China is deservedly famous for its high life expectancy and literacy, and its seemingly low level of suicide. In essence, it would seem that China might optimize its present and future global status by turning more seriously towards an environmentally-based development trajectory. This would certainly ease tensions between the institutions of governance and the aims and hopes of a growing, vocal and youthful middle class.