China’s awkward environmental example

For the most part, the Chinese economy is fast-growing and filthy – rapidly constructing large numbers of the coal power plants that are doing the most to endanger the Earth’s climate. At the same time, China has also started to build and deploy renewable energy technologies faster than any other country. From what outsiders can tell, China’s secretive leadership do seem to be concerned about climate change and the exhaustible character of fossil fuels.

Of course, China’s system of government has enormous problems. China’s unelected leaders remain in power through force and the suppression of the population. Censorship is endemic, and many parts of the government seem to be corrupt and self-serving. China is also aggressive toward peaceful domestic organizations, as well as Tibet and Taiwan. It is not clear that China’s growth model is sustainable even in terms of politics, economics, and security – much less in terms of the environment. It is not inconceivable that the Chinese Communist Party could lose control of the country in the years or decades ahead, and it is completely unclear what would transpire if that took place.

How, then, should people in the West who are concerned about climate change talk about China? Politicians already worry about the performance of their home countries relative to that of China. For that reason, pointing out how many solar panels and wind turbines China is building could potentially goad them into taking more action. At the same time, there is some reason to be concerned that praising any element of Chinese behaviour is an endorsement of the entire Chinese system of government.

All told, I find that argument fairly unconvincing. We don’t need to accept or reject governments as taken all in all. We can be critical about decisions made even by countries which are our closest allies and which have accountable and effective forms of government. By the same token, we can condemn Chinese censorship and repression at the same time as we praise the efforts they are making to deploy renewable energy and try to tackle the problem of greenhouse gas pollution. Of course, we shouldn’t stop complaining about those coal power plants, either. China is shooting itself in the foot with those, just as we are when we build expensive fossil-fuel-powered facilities. In a couple of decades – when the frightening impacts of climate change are undeniably obvious – these costly facilities will need to be scrapped and replaced with the costly renewable facilities we should have built in the first place.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

16 thoughts on “China’s awkward environmental example”

  1. Jasmine stirrings in China
    No awakening, but crush it anyway
    The government goes to great lengths to make sure all is outwardly calm

    Mar 3rd 2011 | BEIJING | from the print edition

    AT SOME point in the education of every foreign student of Chinese, joining a chorus of the simple and syrupy song “Beautiful Jasmine Flower” is all but mandatory. A bunch of students in Kenya sang it to Hu Jintao in 2006, as the Chinese president clapped along, a scene recorded by China’s state-run broadcaster. Until recently that clip was available on Chinese video-sharing websites. Now it has been removed. Googling the folk song’s name produces an error message, indicating that it is blocked by China’s internet firewall. As China ratchets up security to stop contagion from Arab uprisings, even this folksy song, a theme tune at the Beijing Olympics, has become newly taboo. China’s leaders have the jitters.

    The Communist Party is going to extraordinary lengths to prevent stirrings of a Tunisian-style “jasmine revolution” in China. Beijing is gearing up for the annual session of the country’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), on March 5th. Security is always tight for this event, which runs for less than two weeks. Every year the authorities worry that the disaffected will use the session as a pretext to air grievances. But the unrest in north Africa and the Middle East, and calls on the internet for copycat protests in China, have made them especially anxious. Officials insist that the Chinese have no desire to protest. Their clampdown suggests they believe otherwise.

  2. THE speed with which popular protest swept aside long-lasting authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and then Egypt was enough to unnerve autocrats everywhere. In Asia they have watched the tide of heightened democratic aspiration wash across the Middle East and wondered how far it would go. Even in China, the government, ostensibly so confident of the correctness of the path it has chosen, has been wary of the memories events in Cairo might evoke, and of the hopes it might rekindle.

    The most complete Asian despotisms—Myanmar and North Korea—may feel immune to people power. They can rely on their isolation, and on the sheer ruthlessness of their repression. In Central Asian dictatorships, closer in geography, culture and religion to the Middle East, the resonance of the recent revolutions may yet be louder. But it is in China that domestic parallels with recent events, above all in Cairo, are on most people’s minds.

    They are also of the greatest global consequence, not just because of China’s own growing importance, but because its rise has led to talk of a “Beijing consensus” in which rapid economic growth matters more than freedom. In 1989, after the Beijing massacre, as communist dominoes began to topple in eastern Europe, China seemed the outlier, bucking an historical trend that would catch up with it one day. Its subsequent success has made that trend—towards greater freedom and democracy—seem less inevitable, and, for some, less desirable. Even Western commentators have conceded that China’s system delivers the goods. Chinese officials talk of the unsuitability for their country of “Western-style” democracy. This ignores the Western, Leninist origins of the Communist Party’s organisation, and glosses over the crucial “Western” element missing in China—the ability to get rid of unpopular governments without a revolution. That is why revolutions elsewhere are bound to be of compelling interest.

  3. China’s security state
    The truncheon budget
    China boosts spending on welfare—and on internal security, too

    AMONG the misleading and ill-explained details that, as usual, spiced up China’s annual budget, unveiled on March 5th, were some especially eye-catching numbers for security. The surprise was not just that China’s military budget had resumed double-digit growth after a one-year hiatus, but that spending on internal security was higher and growing even faster. The state sees an abundance of threats within.

    The risk that turmoil in the Middle East will spread to China is one of them, though the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, studiously avoided mentioning events there in his two-hour address to the country’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC). Mr Wen did, however, speak of the need to “solve problems that cause great resentment among the masses”, such as the illegal demolition of housing and the forced appropriation of farmland.

    The NPC session, an annual rubber-stamp affair lasting a few days, was full of measures intended as crowd-pleasers. Central-government spending on education, health care and social security is to increase by more than 16%, and on subsidised housing by more than a third. Two days before the session began, Chinese media published a surprising survey indicating that only 6% of citizens felt happy. More welfare spending, perhaps, is to keep unhappy people off the streets.

  4. A special report on the future of the state
    A work in progress
    China’s government is much less impressive than many Westerners believe

    IF THERE was one thing that the world’s tycoons agreed on at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, it was that the Chinese state is a paragon of efficiency—especially compared with the doltish, venal clowns in Washington and Brussels. “Beijing really gets things done,” sighed one American chief executive. “Their government people are so much smarter: it’s terrifying,” enthused one of the world’s richest men. The chalets resounded with stories of contracts rapidly signed, roads speedily built and young engineers designing brilliant cars and software programs.

    There is indeed much to admire about parts of the Chinese government. Over the past 30 years the regime has overseen perhaps the biggest increase in economic well-being ever, with several hundred million people moving into the middle class (even if the state had previously been the main thing that held them back). China is led by a group of people who take government enormously seriously.

    For all this, there is something of a Potemkin village about the Chinese state. It is, after all, not terribly hard for a dictatorship to build roads and railways faster than a democracy can. Multinational companies and the educated middle classes are doing well from the state, but the poorer majority in this ever more unequal country get a raw deal. And even if some of its leaders are trying to move closer to Singapore’s model, there are countless stronger forces pushing in the opposite direction.

  5. Banyan
    On the defensive
    A bad attack of the jitters among Chinese leaders, and dissidents pay the price

    THE rest of the world may gasp in awe at China’s surging economy and cower somewhat in face of its growing might, but its own leaders seem far from complacent. Indeed, to judge from its latest defence white paper, and from a continuing crackdown on its critics at home, China’s government feels besieged.

    The white paper, produced every two years since 1998, with the latest dated 2010, did not appear until March 31st this year. Maybe it was late because the world has been changing too fast, in too many unsettling ways. The paper suggests a world resentful of China’s emergence as a global power, and trying to thwart it: “Suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside are on the increase.”

  6. China’s new rulers
    Princelings and the goon state
    The rise and rise of the princelings, the country’s revolutionary aristocracy

    Apr 14th 2011 | BEIJING | from the print edition

    “THERE are some sour and smelly literati these days who are utterly abominable,” a retired military officer reportedly told a recent gathering in Beijing. “They attack Chairman Mao and practise de-Maoification. We must fight to repel this reactionary counter-current.” At the time, two months ago, the colonel’s crusty words might have had the whiff of a bygone era. Today, amid a heavy crackdown on dissent, they sound cruelly prescient.

    One of the most prominent literati, Ai Weiwei, is among dozens of activists the security forces have rounded up recently. Mr Ai, an artist who is famous abroad, was detained in Beijing as he attempted to board a flight to Hong Kong on April 3rd. There has been no official confirmation since of his whereabouts. Officials say that he is being investigated for unspecified economic crimes, but the Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, warned that Mr Ai had been skirting close to the “red line” of the law with his “maverick” behaviour. In other words, he had apparently provoked the Communist Party once too often.

    Since the late 1970s, when China began to turn its back on Maoist totalitarianism, the country has gone through several cycles of relative tolerance of dissent, followed by periods of repression. But the latest backlash, which was first felt late last year and intensified in late February, has raised eyebrows. It has involved more systematic police harassment of foreign journalists than at any time since the early 1990s. More ominously, activists such as Mr Ai have often simply disappeared rather than being formally arrested.

  7. Environmental activism in China

    Poison protests

    A huge demonstration over a chemical factory unnerves officials

    THESE are worrisome times for China’s rulers. The Communist Party’s credibility was already damaged by a collision of two high-speed trains on July 23rd that left 40 people dead and prompted even the state-supervised media to indulge in a rare outcry about official disregard for public safety. Now comes a demonstration in the north-eastern city of Dalian that has prompted a remarkable climb-down by the authorities. On August 8th a storm smashed through the protecting wall of a paraxylene (PX) factory in the city. To Chinese environmentalists PX, a chemical used to make polyester, is synonymous with toxicity. Around 12,000 people joined the protest demanding the plant’s closure. Demonstrations of this size are exceptional in China’s boomtowns.

    So too are immediate capitulations. The protest was generally orderly (the worst violence reported was a few plastic water bottles thrown at riot police). But its mobilisation without clear leadership, with the help only of mobile telephones and the internet, must have unnerved officials made jumpy by fears that China might copy the Arab Spring. Some demonstrators came prepared, with banners and face masks printed with a no-entry sign over the letters PX. Dalian’s party chief, Tang Jun, tried to placate the crowd by standing atop a police van, promising through a megaphone that the plant would be relocated. He was greeted by disdainful chants.

  8. China report spells out “grim” climate change risks

    (Reuters) – Global warming threatens China’s march to prosperity by cutting crops, shrinking rivers and unleashing more droughts and floods, says the government’s latest assessment of climate change, projecting big shifts in how the nation feeds itself.

    The warnings are carried in the government’s “Second National Assessment Report on Climate Change,” which sums up advancing scientific knowledge about the consequences and costs of global warming for China — the world’s second biggest economy and the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas pollution.

    Global warming fed by greenhouse gases from industry, transport and shifting land-use poses a long-term threat to China’s prosperity, health and food output, says the report. With China’s economy likely to rival the United States’ in size in coming decades, that will trigger wider consequences.

  9. Over the past two decades, Chinese oil consumption has quadrupled to nearly 10 million barrels per day. For the past decade they have been on a growth trajectory which has shown signs of slowing, but could nevertheless see them overtake the U.S. as the world’s top oil consumer by the end of the decade. As I have written before, I believe China’s economy will be the single-biggest long-term driver of oil prices over at least the next 5-10 years.

    As a result, China’s presence has been felt across the globe as they aggressively make acquisitions to feed their thirst for oil. Over the past decade, Chinese spending on energy acquisitions has risen by more than an order of magnitude, rising to nearly $48 billion in 2009 and 2010.

    Three companies dominate China’s oil industry: China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC), Sinopec, and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). In recent years these companies have made deals to develop oil fields in Iraq, signed contracts with Hugo Chavez, and they have become a major force in Ghana — where they have gone head-to-head with ExxonMobil.

  10. In the West it is often said that one of China’s chief advantages in dealing with climate change is that its leaders can impose tough policies that democratic systems shy away from. Mr Wen once said the government would use “an iron hand” to make the country more energy-efficient. But in environmental matters the government does not have an iron hand.

    If local officials—mayors and provincial or county party secretaries—do not like a policy, they can quietly ignore it. As an official in Guangdong once said about pollution controls, “We don’t think these decisions apply to us.” The bosses of large state-owned companies often wield as much power as the ministers who supervise them. Occult systems of patronage matter more than apparent hierarchies. In the Chinese system, the centre proposes; provinces and counties dispose.

    The wider implication is that far from being good at solving environmental problems, the Chinese political system is no better than anyone else’s. The top is ambivalent, the middle sceptical and the grassroots weak and divided.

  11. China is now emitting almost twice as much carbon dioxide as the next-biggest polluter, America. At current rates, it will produce 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 1990 and 2050—as much as the whole world produced between the start of the Industrial Revolution and 1970. Pollutants in the air in Beijing have hit 40 times the level decreed safe by the World Health Organisation. Yet China did not have a ministry devoted to environmental protection until 2008, and the government has done its best to keep information about the levels of filth in the air and water under wraps. Even now, the state is keeping secret a nationwide survey of soil pollution.

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  13. Delhi’s autumnal pollution is of a more dangerous kind. Its 25m people suffer under a seasonal plague that afflicts the Indo-Gangetic Plain from the city of Lucknow in the east all the way to Lahore, in Pakistan, to the west, as millions of rice farmers conclude their harvest by burning off the leftover stalks to clear paddies for winter planting. Add to this Delhi’s unique mix of spices: ash spewed out of coal-fired power plants, fine grit from dirty diesel engines, exhaust from generators running on the cheapest bunker and coking fuels, fumes from crematoria and malodorous miasmas from spontaneously combusting trash mountains. All this gets chucked up into the air where, in early November, rising humidity combines with falling temperatures and an almost complete lack of wind to produce a clammy, smelly suspension of ultrafine toxic dust. It hangs over the city like congealed smoke.

    Yet if the chemical components and proximate causes of air pollution across South Asia are different, the ultimate source is the same: poor governance. It is not that political bosses have uniformly failed to recognise the dangers of air pollution, or taken no steps to curb it. Across the region they have done both. Delhi, for instance, converted all its buses to cleaner natural gas 15 years ago. But governments have for years dealt with the issue haphazardly, half-heartedly and with all the shortcomings in state capacity that put Asia’s underbelly to shame compared with the continent’s less democratic but more efficient countries. Delhi has become the world’s most polluted mega-city, supplanting Beijing.

    Indeed, the contrast with China is stark. For nearly a decade its government has exerted a massive, concerted effort to tackle pollution, with encouraging results. In Beijing the average level of PM 2.5, the finest and most dangerous sort of dust, fell by about 20% between 2012 and 2016. Greenpeace, an environmental pressure group, reckons that around 160,000 premature deaths have been avoided as a result. NASA, America’s space agency, reckons that China’s emissions of sulphur dioxide have fallen by 75% since 2007. India’s grew by 50% over the same period, largely as a result of building ever more coal-fired power stations and failing to equip old ones with filters.

    For decades India has maintained a similar pro-diesel policy, promoting a shift by consumers and carmakers such that, by 2013, some 55% of cars registered had diesel engines. In Delhi diesel accounts for 78% of the PM 2.5 produced by cars. The International Council on Clean Transportation reckons this could potentially translate into an additional 284,600 cases of lung cancer a year. Overall, perhaps as many as 2.5m people in India die prematurely every year owing in part to air pollution…

  14. The new supervision system will be a mixture of the two. At the top is the new commission, which the law says will be led by the Communist Party and share space and personnel with the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). The CCDI is the party’s anti-corruption body and one of the most feared institutions in the country. It is responsible for Mr Xi’s purge of officials. Below the commission there will be a ladder of lower-level agencies that will work with courts and the procurators’ offices (ie, with the state judicial system). Like other government bodies, the agencies will report to the National People’s Congress, the rubber-stamp parliament, which is supposed to control them.

    A sense of the system’s likely impact comes from inspection tours organised this summer by the Ministry of Environmental Protection of factories in the north-east, China’s rust belt. The aim of such tours is to close down those that are exceeding legal limits on pollution. The ministry makes them all the time but its edicts are typically flouted. This time was different. Inspectors from the CCDI came along. Terrified polluters promptly closed dozens of foundries and smelters.

  15. AT NANYAWO elementary school in Hebei province, near Beijing, the temperature in early December fell below freezing, both outside and in. The teachers took to instructing the six-year-old children in the playground. At least outside it was sunny. The classrooms were unusable because the local government had dismantled the coal-fired boilers for environmental reasons, but not yet installed a replacement heating system. There have been several such incidents this winter in northern China. In Linfen, in neighbouring Shanxi province, villagers say their coal-fired heaters have been taken away but the pipes linking them to the gas system have not arrived. A new slogan recently appeared on walls in the town: “If you burn coal, we’ll see you in the detention centre.”

    All countries use a mixture of carrots and sticks in their environmental policies. China does, too (next year it is planning to open the world’s biggest carbon market, for instance). But its sticks—that is, outright bans on polluting activities—are unusually stout. That makes it a good place to judge the impact of command-and-control measures to rein in pollution, as opposed to subsidies or taxes. So far the lesson seems to be that bans work, but only when conditions are right.

    The plan seems to be working. The concentration of pollutants with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (PM 2.5—the most deadly kind) fell from over 100 micrograms per cubic metre in Beijing in 2012-13, at the time of the city’s notorious “airpocalypse”, to around 75 in 2016. That is comparable to London’s clean-up after the “pea soup” fogs of the 1950s, but quicker. It translated, according to Greenpeace, an environmental pressure group, into 160,000 avoided premature deaths in 2016.

    But big environmental controls of every kind are expensive. Germany’s Energiewende, for example, which uses subsidies to encourage greener fuels, cost €60bn ($66bn) in 2015 and German carbon emissions have not fallen since 2010. At least in China airborne pollutants fell for five years and the benefits in terms of deaths avoided were real. Now the government needs to show that these gains can continue for more than a few years—without leaving children freezing outside.

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