Diane Burko, “USA COVID” (2020)

China’s Green Dreams


The Mystery of China’s Glorious Green Dreams
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The ambitious “Chinese Dream” of modernization, wealth, and influence has taken an environmental turn, so it seems. From “ecological civilization” to the “sponge city,” the Chinese state promises a glorious future that is teeming with shades of green. In “The Mystery of China’s Glorious Green Dreams” (Issues, Fall 2020) Ran Ran sets out to explain the gap between China’s aggressive green promises and grim environmental reality. Ran argues that China’s “illogical” bureaucratic system is riddled with perverse incentives for local-level officials and that central-level cadres are adept at dodging the blame for environmental degradation.

My general agreement with Ran’s assessment notwithstanding, I wish to draw readers’ attention to the issue of intentionality.

As is the case with real dreams, dreamers of the Chinese Dream have rather limited agency in deciding what actually figures in the dream. More often than not, local officials regurgitate policy slogans that come from above and enforce regulatory mandates that percolate down the chain of command to their desks. Even in the case of supposedly all-powerful central-level officials, they inherit a political system that is the cumulative making of seven decades of the Communist Party’s rule, thus having to navigate the historical baggage of fragmentation, state ownership, and overlapping authority. Therefore, it seems like an overstatement to suggest that “China’s policy-makers may have chosen this fragmented system because it obscures who gets blamed.” Such a statement implies a level of rational agency that is more imagined than real.

Increasing evidence suggests that even well-intentioned state officials find themselves unable to deliver the full extent of their environmental agenda, thanks to jurisdictional limits and institutional constraints. By the same token, officials who are generally uninclined toward the environment sometimes pursue interventions that turn out to benefit the environment, as evidenced by the waves of anticorruption campaigns that, serendipitously, reduced global shark finning. The tragedy is that under China’s fragmented authoritarianism, it is not only difficult for the public to hold state actors accountable, but also challenging for state officials themselves to behave on rational grounds.

The ultimate problem of the green Chinese Dream is therefore that “cog and screw” environmental bureaucrats of the party-state are faced with a daily paradox. On the one hand, they are called upon to be the human embodiment of the state’s high-profile pledges and high-minded slogans. But on the other, they are afforded little room to exercise individual agency to effect changes on the ground. As a result, so many Chinese environmental officials somnambulate through the green Chinese Dream by merely playing along, tackling air pollution only when foreign dignitaries are expected to visit or curtailing emissions only when central inspection teams draw close.

In the final analysis, it is perhaps not the lack of logic that besets China’s environmental governance, but the lack of human touch. The dreamer is conspicuously missing. Unless the average bureaucrat—and eventually the average citizen—begins to feel some sense of political efficacy, the green Chinese Dream will remain just that.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies

NYU Shanghai

Global Network Assistant Professor

New York University

Over the past 20 years, China has consolidated its position as a green leader by signing on to global climate agreements, setting domestic targets, and investing in green technologies. The country’s approach to the environment is not only laudable, but critical to an international effort to slow the effects of climate change. Ran Ran’s insightful article asks whether, behind the green rhetoric, policies are working on the ground.

Ran’s findings suggest that there is much reason for doubt. It’s not that the state has not acted, but that it’s difficult to gauge concrete effects. The tendency for both central and local governments to fudge numbers and to publish inaccurate data is not accidental but systemic and, as Ran shows, blame politics is ultimately about a lack of accountability in authoritarian governance. A lack of independent reliable data means that even with aggressive environmental commitments, the nation is most likely to fall short in its delivery.

If Ran is right that China’s troubled political incentive structure stands in the way of its environmental governance, then where might pressure for reform come from? To effectively implement environmental programs, it is imperative that China make more room for the broader public to act: scientists, nongovernmental organizations, and everyday citizens. Independently generated third-party data provide an effective counterweight to official data, and can push local and central governments to improve both data gathering and reporting. Citizen participation has the added effect of monitoring and supplementing the efforts of China’s still-weak environmental protection bureau.

Over the past decade, China’s president, Xi Jinping, has led an aggressive government-led environmental program. But it has also been accompanied by a contraction of the space for public participation—ironic given that the public largely agrees on the need for urgent action on the environment. In my own work on municipal waste management, I have found Chinese citizens reluctant to participate in state-directed environmental campaigns and, instead, more likely to protest against state-sponsored green technology precisely because they suspect that official environmental and safety data are at best not independently verified and at worst false.

China recently committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. Alongside the role the country has assumed in leading the world toward an ambitious climate programs, China should strengthen the independence of its environmental protection bureau, while citizens and civil society organizations should also be given space to devise their own environmental programs. Western leaders and nongovernmental organizations can push for third-party verification and independent data to track the impact of China’s policies. Broadening the range of environmental actors is vital for holding not just China’s but the world’s leaders accountable to their green agendas.

Assistant Professor

Department of Anthropology

New York University

Cite this Article

“China’s Green Dreams.” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 2 (Winter 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Winter 2021