The dramatic rise in China’s economy since the 1980s has been matched by an equally dramatic rise in pollution and habitat destruction. Nobody knows this better than the millions of people in China who have endured the country’s ecological decline. The leadership has responded to this situation by promoting a new ideology: “ecological civilisation.”
This ideology was showcased last October when China hosted the United Nations’ COP 15 biodiversity-protection conference. In his keynote speech to delegates, President Xi Jinping declared that China “shall take the development of an ecological civilisation as our guide to coordinate the relationship between man and nature.”
On the face of it, President Xi’s advocacy of ecological civilisation reflects a desirable aspiration for a country suffering from widespread ecological decline. However, as with some other official pronouncements from Chinese officials – such as recent proclamations that Beijing is bolstering democracy in Hong Kong – things are not always what they seem. What at first glance looks like a promising avenue toward environmental protection may instead be cover for something that Xi has demonstrated is more important than anything else: unbending authoritarian rule.
The emergence of ecological civilisation
The idea of ecological civilisation was first formulated in the Soviet Union – hardly a model of environmental protection. It was eventually embraced by Chinese officials, and Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao oversaw its enshrinement as a specific objective of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2017, Xi called on party cadres to “have a strong commitment to socialist ecological civilisation and work to develop a new model of modernisation with humans developing in harmony with nature.” The concept was codified in China’s constitution in 2018.
According to Keele University’s Heidi Wang-Kaeding, at the national level ecological civilisation was designed to persuade the Chinese public, party cadres and entrepreneurs that “achievement of an environmentally-friendly future is grounded in the authoritarian one-party political system,” and at the international level to send the message that China’s party-state would not be pressured by outside actors, but instead that it would chart a course toward “environmentalism with Chinese characteristics.”
Ecological civilisation envisions a China transformed from today’s pollution behemoth. It is a pledge that China will achieve environmental sustainability, with an economy and society that are in “harmony” with ecological limits. It is a promise to balance economic growth and environmental protection. This is not unlike the widely invoked idea of “sustainable development,” which aims to balance environmental, economic and social imperatives.
Ominously, in the Chinese conceptualisation, ecological civilisation signifies a “harmonisation between environmental and commercial interests” rather than a requirement that the latter make way for the former. Put another way, ecological civilisation is at best not about ending environmental harm; it’s about making economic growth less environmentally harmful. Given the enormous size of China’s industrial economy and its hundreds of millions of middle-class consumers, this is a recipe for more pollution and continued damage to the environment.
Implementing ecological civilisation in China
The Chinese government has encouraged many policies that are limiting the damage that the economy would otherwise inflict on the environment. For example, China has more installed solar and wind capacity than any other country. Its factories for building electric vehicles are the envy of the world. It is planting more carbon-absorbing trees than any other country.
However, it is unclear whether these and similar actions are actually motivated by a desire to create an ecological civilisation. Constructing massive wind and solar installations might be aimed at providing a market for wind-generator and solar-panel factories that can then, through economies of scale, undercut international competitors, or it could be intended to diversify energy sources for strategic reasons. The same might be true for electric vehicles: a thriving domestic market lowers prices and makes Chinese technology more competitive internationally, and such vehicles are not vulnerable to shortages of petrol or diesel during times of international crisis. Planting trees might be more about limiting awful sandstorms in Beijing – or forcing non-Han nomads into settlements where they can be controlled more easily – than absorbing carbon emissions.
Despite many positive steps toward sustainability, many of China’s most important environmental indicators continue to go in the wrong direction. For example, it is already far and away the largest source of global carbon emissions – more than the developed countries put together – contributing to global warming and climate change. President Xi has declared that this pollution may continue increasing until 2030. Indeed, responding to exhortations from China’s leaders, the country is now experiencing increasing domestic coal production, increasing coal burning and consequently increasing carbon emissions. Ecological civilisation delayed is ecological civilisation denied.
As practised in China today, ecological civilisation includes the growing extraction of resources and demand for commodities produced at home and around the world. Much of that activity is occurring due to projects that are part of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). BRI projects have resulted in the razing of forests to build dams and to create soy plantations that supply pigfeed to China, blasting coastlines to construct ports, and building coal-fired power plants and factories. Yet, President Xi has extolled the BRI as a manifestation of ecological civilisation.
China’s supposed ecological civilisation also involves encouraging 1.4 billion people to contribute to the economy by consuming more resources, products, services and experiences. The inevitable consequences are mounting adverse impacts on the environment.
Here in Hong Kong, where the government claims to be promoting sustainability, the local version of ecological civilisation entails building thousands of uninsulated public-housing flats, locking their residents into lifetimes of unnecessary energy consumption; official endorsement of new power plants that commit the territory to reliance on fossil fuels for at least several more decades, despite the environmental imperative of quickly phasing out fossil fuels to avoid climate catastrophe; construction of a super-incinerator on precious marine habitat – and handing out “consumption vouchers” so that citizens will buy more stuff – instead of taking overdue steps to reduce waste dramatically; and construction of a third airport runway to promote more air travel, and thus more pollution, when the opposite is essential for a truly ecological civilisation. These are among many other environmentally harmful developments that the government insists are necessary.
Ultimately, despite some steps in the right direction, China’s economic rise has created environmental realities – widespread, massive and growing environmental pollution, habitat destruction and resource extraction – that are contrary to the concept of ecological civilisation espoused by China’s leaders. As Leslie Hook of the Financial Times has noted, among the world’s countries, China is simultaneously “the greenest in the world, but also the most polluting.”
Ecological civilisation or coercive environmentalism?
If ecological civilisation in China is not entirely about environmental sustainability, what else could it be for? Lila Buckley at the International Institute for Environment and Development describes ecological civilisation as “a top-level strategic socio-economic goal of the Chinese government, a vision of sustainable development with specifically Chinese characteristics, a reappraisal of political governance and party institutions, and an appeal to traditional Chinese philosophical values through environmental action.” She argues that an “explicit aim” of the concept is “strengthening the authority of individual leaders and significantly expanding the power of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Instead of creating a sustainable society, ecological civilisation is frequently a rationale for government policies that have other motivations. It is a state-mandated maxim that allows Chinese officials to claim high-minded justification for implementing their particular version of sustainable development, which entails promoting economic growth and thereby strengthening the party-state. It is what New York University’s Yifei Li and American University’s Judith Shapiro have called “coercive environmentalism.”
As both a concept and a practice, ecological civilisation in Chinese terms views democratic principles, public participation, interest groups and the like as obstacles to implementing the government’s ostensible environmental objectives. In Buckley’s characterisation, “ecological civilisation calls for tighter management and stronger authority – not democracy.” Thus, when the government, for example, forces millions of Tibetan, Uighur and other nomads to relinquish their animals and adopt sedentary lives in settlements, state control over citizens is extolled as vital for ecological civilisation.
When the government decides to afforest entire provinces or build hydroelectric dams on fragile rivers, those who highlight the adverse consequences for affected communities or the environment can be pushed aside as retrograde forces trying to hinder the building of an ecological civilisation. The imperative of ecological civilisation means that the rights of affected people must come after officials’ professed environmental objectives. To oppose the party-state is to oppose a healthy environment.
The idea that ecological civilisation could be anti-environment and anti-civilisation – if one defines civilisation as including human rights – seems incongruous until one considers the wider nature of Chinese governance. As Li and Shapiro note, “China’s state-led environmental action needs to be understood in a broader context: China is also the world’s largest repressive state.” Indeed, according to pseudonymous political scientist Andree Clement, the imperative of realising ecological civilisation espoused by President Xi justifies “an authoritarian, even totalitarian, ecology” and officially legitimises “strengthening the technological system and tracking individuals” not just in Xinjiang but throughout China.
Some Westerners have fallen into the trap of praising putative Chinese leadership on ecological civilisation while ignoring China’s growing impact on the global environment. Some of them have a tendency to define China’s ecological civilisation as a reawakening of ancient, supposedly pro-environment, Chinese philosophies, even as they overlook the party-state’s ever-tightening grip on society and its continued devotion to economic growth despite the environmental costs.
Others see China’s authoritarian system as a solution to democratic societies’ inability to achieve better environmental outcomes. However, Shapiro argues that “Western admiration for China’s environmental decisiveness comes out of wishful thinking and a sense that the planet has run out of time. We get infatuated with the notion of ‘ecological civilisation’ because it sounds very forward thinking.”
Style over substance
It may be telling that President Xi did not actually attend last October’s COP15 biodiversity conference in person, apparently due to his understandable fear of catching Covid-19. It may be even more telling that China cancelled its hosting of the second half of the conference this year. (Canada stepped in and will host it in Montreal.) Is this simply a sign of Covid-19’s resurgence in China and the leadership’s obsession with “zero Covid,” or might it be an admission that China will respond to its Covid-induced slowdown by clawing out economic growth at any cost, in the process pushing the world closer to ecological collapse?
Ecological civilisation has so far failed to reverse the trends that make China the greatest threat to the global environment. In China, this new ideology is manifested in increasingly authoritarian environmental governance and authoritarianism justified for supposed environmental reasons. Instead of being a solution to China’s burden on the environment, ecological civilisation reinforces party-state dominance and growing material consumption and pollution. Arran Gare, an Australian philosopher, sums up the situation succinctly: China has “created one of the most inegalitarian and environmentally destructive economies in the world while promoting ecological civilisation.”
The Guardian’s Patrick Greenfield and Vincent Ni argue that China’s ecological civilisation has so far been “a triumph of style over substance when it comes to the environment.” As Li and Shapiro put it, ecological civilisation in China “is less a salve for the planet’s wounds than an intensification of them.” Recognising this reality is necessary if China is to chart a more environmentally sustainable course.
Innumerable positive adjectives can be used to describe Chinese civilisation. Despite grandiose pronouncements from China’s leaders, “ecological” is still not one of them.
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