Holding the environmental mantle

This article is taken from the Focus magazine by CBBC in May 2018.

Sam Geall, Executive Editor at Chinadialogue, explains why it is essential for China to clean up its act. The importance of protecting its air and water is just as much as about social stability as environmental stability 

“We need to increase exchange and cooperation, share experience and jointly meet challenges in climate change, environment protection, energy conservation and emission reduction.” So said Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Bo’ao Forum in April, in Hainan province – a speech aimed at an international audience and positioned, it is fair to conclude, in implicit contrast to an intransigent United States.

China has passed a raft of environmental laws but implementation has long been hobbled

Since the election of US President Donald Trump, Xi has embraced an unforeseeable slew of opportunities to position his country, improbably, as the defender, even saviour, of the rules-based global order. With Trump’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, China could easily double down on its climate-change rhetoric to international acclaim.

Its environmental credentials, then, have worked as a soft-power strategy — and Xi does have a penchant for rhetorical flourish. He first coined the phrase “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver” in 2005, when he was Zhejiang Party Secretary. “Ecological Civilisation” made its official debut in 2007, under then President Hu Jintao, but has since become a signature buzzword under Xi.



But it is undoubtedly more than bombast. This is evident, for example, in the massive government reorganisation announced in March at the National People’s Congress, China’s annual meeting of its legislature. The shake-up, which also included the creation of new high-level bodies on international development, rural affairs, and anti-corruption, saw sweeping reforms to the environmental bureaucracy that target some of the most intractable problems in enforcement.

China has passed a raft of environmental laws in the years since the start of the Reform Era. These are often stringent and well-crafted. But implementation has long been hobbled by poor coordination between elite institutions, as well as a yawning gap between central edicts and the realities of local officialdom.

Cleaning up China’s water, for example, until now has meant working across the Ministry of Land and Resources, which governs groundwater, the Ministry of Water Resources, who regulate water in rivers and lakes, the State Oceanic Administration, concerned with coastal waters, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which can fine and punish polluters.



Meanwhile, local officials would seek rapid economic growth to secure promotions — even, on occasion, if it broke pollution regulations— and local environmental protection bureaus would rely on these same officials for funding and hiring decisions.

The creation of a two new, “super ministries” — the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, and the Ministry of Natural Resources — consolidates many of these fragmented functions, and makes possible a more holistic approach to environmental management, signalling a serious attempt to overcome coordination difficulties. Pilot “vertical management” reforms and adjustments to the political evaluation system for local officials also demonstrate that tackling local enforcement is a serious priority.

“The Chinese Communist Party is keen to be seen acting on popular concerns about pollution and environmental degradation for the sake of its own legitimacy”

So, what has driven this progress? Despite China’s increasingly confident posture on the world stage, it’s better to look closer to home. Most of China’s recent environmental initiatives can be explained by domestic political, economic, and environmental concerns.

Chinese leaders have long understood the seriousness of climate change, but also the likelihood it could exacerbate existing environmental stresses on water and food systems, including chronic droughts in northern China. The public, as evidenced by opinion polls, understand this too — and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is keen to be seen acting on popular concerns about pollution and environmental degradation for the sake of its own legitimacy.


Fortunately for them, this largely aligns with the technological and economic preoccupations of the country’s planners: to move the economy towards slower, higher quality and less energy-intensive growth; to enhance energy security by diversifying away from fossil-fuel dependence and towards renewables, where costs are falling rapidly; to become a leading supplier of innovative technologies to the rest of the world; and to embrace the economic dynamism of the global clean technology markets.

In other words, it’s worth taking seriously, perhaps more seriously than his international pronouncements. In Xi’s speech to the 19th Party Congress late last year, in which he stated that the “principal contradiction” facing Chinese society, a key theoretical concept for the CCP, was “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.”

Which is not to say it will be smooth sailing from here. Major tests in the near to mid-term will include: the ramifications for social stability of restructuring the economy away from polluting industries, which is likely to create unemployment; and the risk of exporting emissions through overseas investments on the “Belt and Road”, as the domestic economy slows and overcapacity shifts across borders.

These are not small obstacles, and unless they are addressed, China’s international leadership posture will be undermined — but it is clear, at least, that the struggle to achieve “clear waters and green mountains” is more than rhetoric.

Sam Geall is Executive Editor at chinadialogue, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, and Associate Faculty at University of Sussex.

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