China’s awkward environmental example

2011-03-16

in Law, Politics, The environment

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.

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. March 18, 2011 at 11:34 pm

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.

. March 28, 2011 at 7:37 pm

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.

. March 30, 2011 at 7:01 pm

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.

. April 7, 2011 at 9:38 pm

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.

. April 21, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Censors at the Chinese politburo have ramped up their electronic surveillance and censorship efforts; some piece of spyware is now monitoring all voice communications, and will terminate any phone call in which someone speaks the word “protest” in Mandarin or English (and presumably in other languages)

. April 23, 2011 at 6:00 pm

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.”

. May 2, 2011 at 6:05 pm

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.

. September 18, 2011 at 8:18 pm

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.

. January 18, 2012 at 7:48 am

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.

. August 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm

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.

. August 25, 2013 at 8:52 pm

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.

. March 3, 2014 at 4:09 pm

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.

Frustan26x February 10, 2017 at 4:20 pm

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