Green China: A Quixotic Vision

Despite an overarching negativity where China and the environment are concerned, it is set to become the leading power in the green economy. However, it is the political elective which must make the policies to make China’s future green. As a one-party-state there is very little green opposition should environmental reforms not be put into practice.

China has long been plagued by a variety of environmental issues due to its booming industrialisation and urbanisation. Since its open policy began in 1978, China has developed at an unprecedented rate, but this hasn’t come without consequences. The environmental impact has been greatly accelerated over a short period of time where other countries have experienced similar problems more gradually.

Richard Balme (FR), researcher at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics, evaluates in his article in Cogito. See below for a short summary of the arguments he puts forward in his work. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge posed to the environment is a demographic one. This is particularly important in China's case as it houses 22% of the world’s population yet it only has 9% of the world’s arable surface. With many mouths to feed, China must meet agricultural demand somehow. However this has led to a dangerous reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, and can produce water shortages. In addition, the huge population is left exposed to industrial activity in cancer cities. Life expectancies are shortened by the astronomical levels of pollution, and the expansion of industry only means that there is less space to grow crops needed to meet human demands. Naturally, such environmental problems cause social inequality. It is the poorest who are forced to live in direct contact with some of the most harmful industrial enterprises. 

However, pollution and climate change are not simply sidelined by the government. It has become a key focus for China on a domestic and international level. To keep the people happy the government must be at least seen to be making some headway into improving the environmental situation. In fact, it is exactly this threat to the Communist Party’s power which has brought about environmental legislation and regulations, and China is a key player in major environmental treaties and bilateral and multilateral cooperation programs. 

Yet, words do not directly translate into action. The legislation remains powerless due to the nature of Chinese growth. There are a number of reasons for this the Chinese economy is largely based on manufacturing activity and physical transformation of the environment; next, the asymmetrical demands and conflicting objectives between environmental protection and growth policies; the decentralization of decision-making to the provincial and especially local level, where collusion between economic and political interests directly affects the CCP. There is no real electoral competition or a Green party to influence the Communist Party agenda. There is no effective political challenge to the CCP, rather, the massive population is the threat which the party seeks to placate. Additionally, regional authorities rarely have the resources to engage with the CCP’s country-wide initiatives. 

That said, China is also making steps in the right direction. It is instrumental in the up and coming electric vehicle industry, and it is investing in and developing renewable energies all the time. Simply put though, any positive changes made to reduce CO2 emissions and improve the quality of life for the Chinese people are quashed by unparalleled democratic expansion and bureaucratic governance. 

Selective bibliography

Balme, Richard. 2014. “Mobilising for environmental justice in China.” Asia Pacific Journal of Public Administration 36 (3): 173-184.

Balme, Richard and Tang Renwu. 2014. “Environmental governance in the People’s Republic of China: the political economy of growth, collective action and policy developments – introductory perspectives.” Asia Pacific Journal of Public Administration 36 (3): 167-172.

Discover more Cogito research 

Pesticides: What is the Real Cost for Health?

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