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Top-down Directives for Ecological Civilization

China's rhetorical push for an “Ecological Civilization” has accompanied an ambitious raft of top-down environmental targets, regulations, and policies. These include strategies launched under the country's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011–2015), which has enshrined sustainable development as a core state policy. Among other measures, the plan includes significant investments in low-carbon energy technologies, policies to support “strategic emerging industries” (including electric cars and energy conservation), and a nationwide target for reducing carbon intensity—carbon dioxide emitted per unit of gross domestic product (GDP)—of 17 percent.

The plan also includes reduction targets of 16 percent for energy intensity, 8 percent for sulfur dioxide and chemical oxygen demand (a measure of water pollution), and 10 percent for ammonia nitrogen and nitrogen oxides. It establishes a 30 percent reduction target for water intensity—water consumed per unit of industrial added value—and pledges to boost forest cover to 21.7 percent and increase forest stock by 600 million cubic meters.

Furthermore, the government has now designated 13 regions as “lowcarbon economy” pilot zones, and in August 2013 it launched a smart-city program with nine pilot cities. Also in August, the environment ministry took the unusual step of halting new projects for two major state-run oil companies after they failed to meet pollution targets.

Despite the laudable ambition of such moves from the top, however, China's authoritarian structures do not always facilitate rapid and effective

A coal-fired power plant and industrial area near downtown Yangzhou.

policy implementation, as is commonly perceived. In reality, power in the People's Republic is highly negotiated; academic observers often refer to China's system as “fragmented authoritarianism.” Policies, laws, and regulations are not only weakened through protracted bargaining among bureaucratic elites, but also frequently ignored further down the system.

One environmental law expert, Peking University professor Wang Jin, argued memorably that China's “green laws are useless.” Although China has many environmental laws on the books, Wang observed, their enforcement provisions are often weak, and the legal system is underdeveloped and hobbled by political interference. Chinese laws are often vague and are more akin to policy statements; many “encourage” rather than “require” specifi steps to be taken. According to academic Alex Wang, this is well understood by Chinese environmental offi who have openly acknowledged that such weaknesses result from compromises in the legislative process—compromises driven by concerns about limiting China's economic growth.

China's phenomenal growth over the past three decades was unleashed in large part through the considerable devolution of power from the center, which spurred economic competition among regional government chiefs. But a notable cost of this arrangement has been an ecological race to the bottom, where collusive alliances of money and power at the local level commonly trump environmental regulations. Significantly, China's local environmental protection bureaus are funded not by the central government's Ministry of Environmental Protection, but instead by the very same local officials they are tasked with regulating.

Prominent green projects launched from the center often have turned out to be less impressive than the rhetoric accompanying them. Jiang Kejun, with the Energy Research Institute, an influential government think tank, said in 2010 that most of China's “low-carbon” city projects were not “genuine,” and that many of these cities were still very much on high-carbon development pathways. Without clear and transparent regulations or effective systems for political implementation, the cities had simply “all piled in to become 'low-carbon cities' and it's been disastrous,” Jiang said.

The opacity of decision making and the restricted public access to implementation mechanisms adds to the difficulty of uncovering such problems, and indeed of predicting whether any given policy will be effective. In 2010, when the environmental news site commissioned an investigation into environment and health in Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in southern China, the research was made difficult by a culture of official secrecy. Researchers' requests for interviews with scientists and environmental and public health officials were constantly refused. In some cases, academics initially agreed to researchers' requests for interviews, but later were told by government officials not to speak to them. Even the proceedings of public academic conferences were deemed “confidential.”

Such experiences are familiar to Chinese journalists, whose ability to conduct investigations is regularly curtailed by censorship and obfuscation. In the context of rising environmental concern from networked citizens, Chinese authorities have regularly extended such censorious approaches into the realm of the Internet as well. Terms like sanbu, or “stroll”—a euphemism commonly used by citizens to describe a street demonstration—are often scrubbed from websites when environmental protests are expected to occur. Truthful information leaked by whistleblowers, such as information about an oil well blow-out in the Bohai Gulf in 2010, is often initially suppressed as dangerous “rumor.”

In September 2013, Dong Liangjie, an “environmental expert,” was arrested as part of a nationwide “anti-rumor” crackdown. The cofounder of a waterpurifier company with more than 3 million followers on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, he had frequently commented on environmental issues, but police said that many of his posts contained sensational or false information that exaggerated the problem of environmental pollution in China.

Effective environmental governance in China is hampered further by a weak and restricted civil society. Some within China's fragmented governmental system have actively encouraged the growth of civil society, in part to help provide necessary services, such as elder care, that the post-socialist society has increasingly struggled to provide. But another reason for the push has been to supervise the implementation of environmental laws and regulations at the local level.

By 2011, China was home to an estimated 449,000 legally registered civil society organizations, many of them environmental groups. Many more groups, possibly as many as 3 million, operate as unregistered organizations, having failed to meet the requirements of a highly restrictive registration process (which requires, for example, that every independent group find a government sponsor). These groups exist in a gray zone, with no protection from prosecution or other official sanctions.

China has also introduced laws and regulations that provide for public participation in environmental decision making, but, as with other environmental laws, the existence of such measures on the books is no guarantee of their effective implementation. China's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law and Administrative Licensing Law require the government to solicit public opinion on new projects. Yet even when these laws are enforced, participation is not invited at the early, scoping stage of a project when it could be used to make more informed and sustainable decisions. It is sought only after a project design has been finalized and an EIA has been completed, just before the EIA is submitted for official approval.

Furthermore, the full EIA will not be disclosed for the public to read. In 2008, China adopted government transparency regulations, which led to the creation of a specific decree on the release of environmental information. This not only requires the proactive disclosure of certain types of environmental data, but also allows citizens to request information from government. But these requests are still commonly rejected, and more sensitive data—not only EIAs, but also, for example, information on the disposal of hazardous waste—is almost impossible to obtain.

Because transparency and public participation in environmental decision making are so often found to be non-existent or ineffective, levels of public trust are low. As a result, as Tang Hao suggested, in the absence of effective channels for public participation, citizens' concerns frequently find their outlet in protest.

Conflicts such as the one over uranium processing in Guangdong point to the likelihood that China's attempts to meet its climate goals may clash increasingly with other ecological and social concerns. The 12th Five-Year Plan, while incorporating concerns about the environment and climate change, also promises a kickstart for China's nuclear industry—a move that is dubbed “Great Leap Forward” thinking by critics, such as prominent physicist He Zuoxiu, who fears the proposed boost is rash and unsafe. China plans a fourfold increase in its nuclear capacity, to at least 58 gigawatts, by 2020. The country currently has 17 nuclear power reactors in operation but another 30 being built, and more are about to start construction.

Perhaps equally significantly, the 12th Five-Year Plan seems set to restart the push for energy from large hydropower on the country's southwestern rivers. Opposition to such projects gave birth to many of the current generation of China's environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which achieved an early significant victory in 2004 when they halted a cascade of dams on the Nu (Salween) River, Asia's longest undammed river.

Now, the target to boost renewable energy to a 15 percent share of China's primary energy consumption by 2015 appears to depend on giving the green light to such stalled projects. The plan promises an extra 120 gigawatts of new hydropower, equivalent to more than one new Three Gorges Dam every year over the five years and, according to the advocacy group International Rivers, more than any other country has built in its entire history. This is no small worry, not only for those in China concerned about large-scale resettlement, possible damage to fisheries and biodiversity, and increased seismicity, but also for neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, and India, which are concerned about the possible downstream impacts on communities and ecosystems.

China's proliferating social and environmental conflicts are unlikely to reach consensus any time soon. Instead, the challenge is for government to institutionalize greater transparency and forms of public participation in environmental decision making that can not only benefit green development, but also help to address a deepening social conflict that is being exacerbated by repressive policy responses.

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