China as the leader of an ecological civilization

China Goes Green – Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet
ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY / The future of the world depends on China taking its environmental commitments seriously


A critical book about China environmental policy is very interesting for those who are concerned about the future of the world. When the Chinese professor Yifei Li from Shanghai, with access to Chinese sources and cultural background, has joined forces with the environmental policy professor Judith Shapiro, known for the China study Mao's War Against Nature (2001), there is every reason to follow. The last decades have China apparently abandoned the modernist rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution, where large-scale actions were to coerce and subdue nature. They are talking about an "ecological civilization" and will themselves be at the forefront of the transformation of the world community. At the same time, the authors note, authoritarian China has abandoned the doctrine Deng Xiaoping advocated in the 1980s, that China should "hide its strength and take time."

To the rest of the world, China will not only show its power, but also action and speed in its dealings with environmental issues, as in everything else. The idea of ​​China as the leader of an ecological civilization is for many a test: Can a more authoritarian regime be needed to solve environmental problems?

Are Western democracies too weak and cumbersome, too responsive to special interests and political tug-of-war to really tackle and do something about the environmental challenges? Is not an authoritarian government a perfect instrument for taking necessary but often unpopular environmental measures? Shapiro and Li's main grip is to turn the question around: Are not environmental arguments a perfect instrument for defending authoritarian use of force against their own people? And is it not also a perfect instrument for foreign policy acceptance, a means for China to secure global dominance?

The war against nature

Mao's initiative to exterminate the sparrows in China has become a terrifying example of ecological insanity, and the consequences were, of course, that nature became unbalanced in ways Mao and the bureaucrats had not anticipated. Shapiro has previously shown that it was part of an entire doctrine, where the war against nature was part of the public rhetoric. The mentality still lingers today, Li and Shapiro write, which they illustrate with the story of Yin Yuzhen, who lives in the impoverished Uxin Banner in Inner Mongolia. With a slow and wise patience, Yin managed to grow trees and shrubs on his own barren property and revived a destroyed ecosystem. When her little miracle was discovered, the authorities launched a huge project to expand Yin's work, but instead planted huge forests of fast-growing poplars to demonstrate success within the framework of the five-year plan. The result was a depleted, monotonous and poor ecosystem which created problems with the groundwater, since the roots of these trees seize all the moisture in the soil.

May a more authoritarian system of government be needed to solve environmental problems?

A similar lack of sensitivity and responsiveness to feedback from affected parties is found everywhere. The attitude of the bureaucracy is summarized in the concept yidaoke – «to cut everything with the same knife». This mentality is also found in rigid routines where everyone has to deliver source-sorted rubbish at the same time, and have the rubbish checked by inspectors, which means that people have to leave the working day earlier to get home on time.

At the same time, there is talk of using cameras with digital face recognition on garbage containers to force people to correctly sort residual waste. A state-of-the-art environmental civilization does not necessarily point in the direction of a green idyll. External technocratic control and surveillance easily lead to both reluctance and apathy.

When the usual Chinese instruments, campaigns, objectives and social indoctrination are used to win quick victories for the environment, the danger of mistakes and fatal simplifications is great. Watercourse regulation and dams are pushed through as environmentally friendly measures, at the same time as the damage to local nature and culture is minimally taken into account.

Consulting local people and having a dialogue with the people is not only necessary for reasons of justice; dealing with local ecology is a prerequisite for pursuing an environmentally friendly nature policy at all, the authors point out. Especially in the treatment of peripheral minorities, China has made environmental measures another means of dominance, they claim. Even the creation of national parks can be problematic when it means that people are forcibly relocated and deprived of their livelihood.

Progress and improvements

There is thus every reason for reservation when China in the last decade has pushed for its "Belt and Road Initiative", which will basically invest in "green" infrastructure along the old Silk Road from Asia to Europe. It is difficult to see how a large-scale modernization project based on infrastructure development can succeed in representing a green turnaround, but this is how the project is sold.

photo: pixabay

Even at the UN, China's rhetoric about an ecological civilization has apparently gone straight home and been taken seriously. When critics point to China's geopolitical interests of new ports and railways abroad, and internal social control, the Chinese authorities respond by dismissing it as fear and slander. The problem lies in the denial of conflicts: China's environmental arguments are technocratic and are conducted in a depoliticized language where everything is referred to as progress og improvement.

In practice, we are talking about a Chinese globalization. China has ambitions for mining the moon and researches intensively on geoengineering, climate and atmosphere control. Geopolitically, China also has control over markets for rare heavy metals, which gives them great power in the international arena if they stop exports. The game of power is obvious, but also follows an understandable logic. Shapiro and Li recall that in 1835 China chose to ban the import of opium from the British Empire to protect themselves, which triggered the opium wars.

The trade war with USA is different, but when China in 2017 decided to refrain from importing waste from the rest of the world, the message was both ecological and political: They will no longer be a dumping ground for others. China remains the "chimney of the world", and even "zero-emission countries" depend on the goods they produce. That China commendably still has to take The Paris Agreement seriously in the years when the United States has failed, has given them a key position. We must all hope that the green approaches are the germ of an environmental commitment that goes deeper and extends beyond propaganda and rhetoric.

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