A DISCUSSION OFChina Planet: Ecological Civilization and Global Climate Governance
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In “China Planet: Ecological Civilization and Global Climate Governance” (Issues, Summer 2022), Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro seek to explain not only whether China can uphold its climate promises, but also whether the costs of achieving these promises would be worth it for the democratic world. They point out that answering those questions would “require transparency, accountability, and social equality—all of which are in short supply in the Middle Kingdom.”
The article makes a significant contribution to challenge and deconstruct China’s green image under the era of President Xi Jinping’s “Ecological Civilization.” Since 2012, China’s leadership has been using a green “China Dream” discourse that connects domestic environmental actions to global leadership on climate change and the “glorious revival” of the Chinese nation. This discourse often speaks of green policies in glowing terms, such as “green mountains are in fact gold mountains, silver mountains.” However, whether and at what cost the Chinese leader’s lofty rhetoric has been translated into environmental outcomes in practice has become a major question that is much harder to answer.
One key point the authors emphasize is the many nonenvironmental consequences of the coercive, state-led “authoritarian environmentalism” over the course of China’s making and remaking of international climate politics. They believe that instead of serving to achieve sustainability, China’s proclaimed emphasis on ecological civilization is actually a means to strengthen the Communist Party within and outside China. Therefore, a more accurate term than authoritarian environmentalism should be “environmental authoritarianism,” which resonates with the comparative environmental politics literature.
The rise of environmental authoritarianism reflects the long debate about the relations between China’s regime type and its government’s environmental performance. Considering the climate challenges that liberal democratic systems have faced, critics have questioned the performance of liberal democracies and especially their capability in leading global climate change governance. China created the concept of environmental authoritarianism to bring together these doubts about democracy as a favorable and capable model for environmental decisionmaking and governance. China is widely regarded to be a preferable example. Supporters of the actual environmental authoritarianism assume that a centralized undemocratic state may prove essential for major responses to the growing, complex, and global environmental challenges.
Li and Shapiro deeply engage with the ongoing debate and provide an insightful answer. In their opinion, “Although China has seen some success in realizing its ambitious climate goals, the country’s achievements have come at a social and political cost that few democracies could—or should—tolerate.”
Their observations might inspire anyone who is curious to critically explore the following two questions:
First, why did the Chinese government intentionally select the ecological civilization green discourse as the “clothing” of authoritarianism? Could it be a double-edged sword for China’s governing party to maintain its legitimacy? In the formerly communist Eastern European countries of Ukraine and Poland, environmental crises led to national social movements that presented significant challenges to their governments’ political legitimacy. Do the political elites in China have the same concern that using environmentalism as a cover might in the end turn out to be “lifting a stone only to drop it on your own feet,” as an old Chinese proverb predicted?
Second, why does the western liberal world still want to cooperate with China on climate change governance if China is not genuinely interested in green values and is using environmentalism only to maximize its power in the international community and increase control of its own institutions and citizens?
Associate Professor of Environmental Politics
Renmin University of China
To tackle the climate crisis, it is necessary for China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to take decisive actions to cut emissions. Almost paradoxically, China at the same time dominates the supply chains of technologies that are needed for the world to transition to renewable energy.
Meanwhile, in democracies, the inaction and the messy fights among government bodies and interest groups have left many people frustrated with the democratic process’s ability to address climate change. This and the fact that the climate fight hinges so much on China have created a willingness by some governments to overlook the problematic ways China approaches climate change.
Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro, in their essay as well as in their 2020 book, China Goes Green, caution about the perils of China’s top-down, numbers-based, and tech-driven environmental governance model. As a human rights researcher who over the years has witnessed and documented the tremendous human rights cost in the Chinese government’s pursuit of grand development goals, I am relieved to see scholars in the environment field sound the alarm about the “China model.”
As Li and Shapiro discuss, the burden of making the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics green “fell primarily on China’s most vulnerable and politically disenfranchised.” Similarly, to reduce coal consumption, some local authorities have banned the burning of coal, including for home heating, without consulting the affected communities, forcing people who couldn’t afford alternative energy sources to freeze in the winter, and fined those who secretly burn coal.
China’s supply chains for renewable energy are also ridden with human rights violations. Almost half of the world’s supply of polysilicon, a key component of solar panels, is produced in Xinjiang, a region where government abuses against the 13 million minority Uyghur Muslims “may constitute … crimes against humanity,” according to a recent United Nations report. In Guinea, to mine bauxite, a primary source of aluminum, which is a key component of electric vehicles, Human Rights Watch documented a joint venture linked to a Chinese company that pushed farmers off their ancestral land and destroyed their water sources. The dust produced by the mining also caused respiratory illnesses in villagers.
Assessments of the Chinese government as a climate model should take into account that it bans independent media, stringently controls the internet, and routinely jails government critics. The human rights abuses that are publicly known are only the tip of the iceberg.
Li and Shapiro also call into question the sustainability of the Chinese government’s rights-trampling climate fixes, arguing that they “cause people to become confused, angry, and even hostile to the climate cause,” and that “better outcomes are achieved when grassroots, citizen-driven environmental initiatives and projects become trusted partners with the state.” This corresponds with Human Rights Watch research on climate and human rights globally. Robust and rights-respecting climate action requires the full and meaningful participation of all stakeholders, including governments, activists, civil society groups, and populations most vulnerable to the harm of climate change. Doing away with human rights to address the climate crisis is not only ethically unacceptable, but also fundamentally ineffective.
Senior China Researcher
Human Rights Watch
Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro raise many good points about China’s dominance in global infrastructure construction and development.
To add to this discussion, I’d note that it is one thing to build the infrastructure, but quite another to manage it reliably. China’s safety cultures may be far less exportable—despite the country’s expansive outreach through its Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, we need to first know considerably more about China’s track records in high reliability management of infrastructures. I have in mind particularly the real-time management of the nation’s high-speed rail system and coal-fueled power plants, and of the backbone transmission and distribution of electricity and water supplies in large metropolitan areas.
We know that infrastructure data are in short supply from China, but it is important, I think, that data gaps be differentiated going forward by both types of infrastructure and their management cultures. How to fill these gaps? I know of no real substitute for Chinese scholars willing, even if currently unable, to analyze and research these major topics further.
Senior Research Associate
Center for Catastrophic Risk Management
University of California, Berkeley