Green economics have become increasingly central to China’s domestic and international politics since it announced its national strategy to build an “ecological civilization” in 2007. In this interview, the authors of China Goes Green (Polity, 2020) interpret the Chinese state’s approach to environmentalism, how it is being used to reinforce authoritarian control, and the danger of climate overshadowing other critical social and environmental issues. With international cooperation on climate desperately wanting, they discuss how EU, US and Chinese climate policies can and should fit together ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference planned for late 2021.
Clémence Pèlegrin: In China Goes Green, you distinguish between environmental authoritarianism and authoritarian environmentalism. Can you explain this difference and how China’s climate politics and policies have evolved?
Yifei Li: We set out to research authoritarian environmentalism, but our investigation took us somewhere that we didn’t expect. People are frustrated by how democracies seem incapable of producing robust and effective responses to environmental challenges. You could even say that there is Western admiration for China’s authoritarian, decisive approaches to environmentalism. In other words, if the end of environmental sustainability is noble enough, it could be used to justify the means of authoritarian governmental approaches. However, after a systematic review of Chinese environmental power on the ground, we found that environmental protection, instead of being the end, is becoming the pretext for the intensification of authoritarian control at home, geopolitical leverage, and all sorts of international influences.
Judith Shapiro: I think some of the 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 civilization” because it sounds very forward-thinking.
You have described China’s highly centralised approach to environmental policy. To what extent could this pose a problem to efficient policymaking?
Judith Shapiro: On the one hand, we must admire that the Chinese state is investing tremendous funds and institutional support into technological innovation for climate and other environmental concerns, whether in the form of think-tanks or places like Tsinghua University. Certainly, the US should admire it: there’s no funding from the US National Science Foundation to this degree. On the other hand, while it is very exciting, it reflects a kind of technocratic approach to environmental policymaking in which engineers lead the process while citizens have no say. Occasionally, these engineers invent something, such as fuel-burning chambers which can shoot silver iodide into the monsoons coming up from India to create a “sky river” on the Tibetan plateau. Then, suddenly, they plan to install some 10 000 of these machines. What about the Indians who also need this water, or the Tibetans whose beliefs do not allow this sort of intervention? There is a notion here that people can conquer nature. Years ago, I worked on Mao’s war against nature, and this really harks back to that – it shows the same kind of infatuation with high modernism that the American political scientist James Scott described back in 1999 in Seeing Like a State.
Yifei Li: When innovative capacity, epistemic power or knowledge is so centralised, it often means that Chinese state officials, well intentioned though they may be, just don’t know what is happening on the ground to the point where they ignore inputs from ethnic minority groups and independent scientists. In this case, centralisation becomes a disservice to the Chinese state. They are pursuing a one-dimensional approach of what China is currently and what China could become moving forward. By being completely desensitised to the complexity of the nation and the diversity of society, Chinese state actors undermine the state’s ability to govern well.
The CCP sees itself as rejuvenating “the Chinese nation” and restoring China’s former glory: it is not just building any kind of civilization – it is building a unique, ecological kind of civilization.
Judith Shapiro: In some ways, that’s been part of the governance system of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from the beginning: the idea that the CCP represents the people and knows better than the people at the same time.
How does this eco-modernism interact with the notion of ecological civilization?
Yifei Li: Ecological civilization is an overarching governmental strategy. There is a premature tendency on the part of many observers – both inside and outside China – to dismiss it as propaganda. Ecological civilization represents Chinese Marxism’s unique “innovation” to the classic Marxist formulation of the stages of development, from agricultural society to imperialism, to capitalism, to socialism and then, ultimately, to communism. Chinese state-sponsored Marxists are essentially suggesting that ecological civilization is the transitional stage from socialism to communism. So, they are suggesting that China is experiencing something that is Marxist but that Karl Marx himself didn’t even see. In that sense, it becomes a unique intellectual contribution.
China is also saying that before the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century it was at top of the world’s civilizations, but that since then, there has been a century of humiliation for China. The CCP sees itself as rejuvenating “the Chinese nation” and restoring China’s former glory: it is not just building any kind of civilization – it is building a unique, ecological kind of civilization. That, in a way, becomes the CCP’s branding of what it is doing in China. It’s important to recognise the centrality of ecological civilization to how the Chinese state is thinking about itself. Moving forward, environmental protection will continue to feature very prominently in Chinese state policies.
Judith Shapiro: It’s worth remembering that this notion has been included in the Chinese state constitution and the five-year plans: they could just as easily have used the phrase “sustainable development”, but they chose not to because that would have been a Western import.
Can you explain the phenomenon of “green grabbing” and what this tells us about the Chinese government’s approach to energy transition on the ground?
Judith Shapiro: In its various environmental programmes, the Chinese state furthers its goals vis-à-vis institutions and ordinary people. For instance, China has been building dams for a long time, and they often serve the interests of local officials who benefit by selling electricity. But now, with the commitment to carbon neutrality by 2060, it has become much easier for the state to justify the need to build these dams as part of a renewable energy portfolio. Hydroelectric dams are already incredibly contentious, both in China and abroad, and are resisted by the communities they displace. Countries downstream the Mekong river, such as Vietnam, have been enormously impacted by China’s dam-building. India is also very worried about China’s dam projects on the Brahmaputra river.
In its various environmental programmes, the Chinese state furthers its goals vis-à-vis institutions and ordinary people.
By listening to voices that resist the dams, the state can avoid making serious mistakes. For instance, the dam that was planned for the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province would have been catastrophically damaging to China’s intangible heritage, but it was abandoned in 2007 following a huge campaign. Unfortunately, some of those projects are back on the table and we must keep an eye on this new set of excuses for building hydropower, which is very bad for diversity, landscape laws and human rights.
Yifei Li: A lot of international admiration for Chinese environmentalism has been premised on China’s promotion of renewable energy. We need to be more careful here. Hydropower may be renewable from an energy perspective, but dams are essentially breaking off riverine ecosystems and have long-lasting social and economic impacts on local communities. We must ask ourselves, at what cost is China achieving its renewable energy policies?
To what extent can China’s transition accentuate social inequalities, both domestically and abroad?
Judith Shapiro: Environmental displacement is a core insight when considering climate justice. Across borders, dams are being built on the Mekong river to serve Chinese energy needs. Even along the Belt and Road, its infrastructure programme to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks, China exports coal-fired power plants and searches for and extracts raw materials with severe environmental impacts. Environmental displacement is increasingly being shifted overseas to poorer communities who are in a weaker position to resist, whether in Africa, Latin America or even along the Belt and Road. Today, the Belt and Road is being framed as a win-win for China and its partners. It echoes the theory that late-stage capitalism needs to constantly look for new markets and raw materials.
Yifei Li: One example of urban-rural inequality is the recycling mandate in the city of Shanghai. Recycling has been carried out in this city for decades, and many migrant workers depend on it as their primary source of income. The government is now trying to build a formalised recycling system in the city, pushing out migrant workers and hiring locals instead. At the same time, they are gentrifying the city and limiting the economic space for migrant workers to continue to thrive in major metropolitan centers in Shanghai and in Beijing. That’s a common trend we’re seeing in other places too.
How do you reflect on the economic rationale of cost-benefit balance underlying the Chinese government’s ecological ambitions?
Yifei Li: China is using the Belt and Road initiative as a mechanism to absorb its economic surplus. It is exporting high-speed rail technologies to its partners on the Belt and Road when China’s domestic market has been saturated. The Belt and Road is becoming a Chinese economic growth strategy. What is mind-boggling is how, despite the environmental destruction caused by the Belt and Road initiative, Chinese state actors continue to call it “green, smart, win-win”. There is abundant evidence of ecological habitats being destroyed, deep-water seaports damaging entire marine systems, and coal-fired power plants releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.
What is mind-boggling is how, despite the environmental destruction caused by the Belt and Road initiative, Chinese state actors continue to call it “green, smart, win-win.”
China announced a plan to reach peak carbon emissions no later than 2030, and then carbon neutrality by 2060. The real question is: how are they going to achieve it? Various local experiments seek to account for carbon neutrality. In Beijing, for example, anyone wanting to host a sporting event must do what they call a “full-scale carbon inventory” by calculating how much energy, fuel, water and so on it will require. The total will then be compared to the carbon quota assigned by the government. Anyone exceeding their quota must go to the carbon cap and trade mechanism in Beijing to buy more carbon credits. It strikes me as a very risky experiment. It gives Chinese government actors sweeping authority in determining how much carbon any event is entitled to release. It is not far-fetched to imagine a scenario in which events better aligned with the state’s ambitions get more credits. If or when the 2060 carbon neutrality pledge is achieved in this fashion at a national scale, it will be very worrying.
Is China aiming to gain worldwide intellectual leadership on how states can reconcile economic development and ecological transition?
Yifei Li: Chinese diplomats are very much driven by this idea of seeing the Chinese economic approach successfully replicated in other parts of the world like Africa and South America. The Chinese state wants to be a global leader in environmental protection. Under Trump, the US dismantled much of the environmental apparatus. China seems very eager to fill that void. But if it wants to live up to its full potential as a global leader, China must learn to listen to non-state actors. It needs to learn to be sensitive to alternative views of development, and to concerns that may or may not align with the urban-centric developmental vision that seems to be so deeply entrenched in the Chinese state.
Could you tell us more about non-climate environmental impacts in China?
Judith Shapiro: Only looking at carbon neglects many other kinds of environmental impacts. The Chinese mega-dams, for instance, have enormous repercussions on all kinds of ecosystems. Sometimes, with the urgency of the climate crisis, we forget that there are other environmental issues at stake too.
Yifei Li: One of the most central insights of environmental studies is that everything is connected. We cannot separate activities like corn or soy monocultures from the wider system that gives rise to them and the damage they inflict on other parts of the ecosystem. Whether it is a forest, a marine ecosystem, or even an urban ecosystem, any project should be sensitive not only to long-term ecological impacts but also to the impacts that may not seem immediately apparent. Take the Three Gorges Dam, for example: concerns were already being voiced when it was being constructed, even before many of the ecological consequences had been predicted. It’s only after ten, twenty years that we’re beginning to appreciate the long-term loss of sedimentation, including what this means for downstream communities. This wasn’t known before, simply because humans had never experienced a similar impact on that scale. But today, we know for a fact that because of the Three Gorges Dam, the city of Shanghai is not receiving enough sedimentation, causing it to be slowly washed away into the East China Sea because ocean water is salty and erosive. Ecological consequences will take a very long time to manifest. If we aren’t careful now, the consequences can be very costly further down the road.
Sometimes, with the urgency of the climate crisis, we forget that there are other environmental issues at stake too.
Is China investing in adapting to the current effects of climate change? How big a priority is this for the Chinese government?
Yifei Li: It’s a huge priority. The city of Shanghai where I was born and raised is at risk of experiencing serious adverse climate events if the sea level continues to rise. Top leaders are fully aware of such dangers and they are investing in a seawall comparable to the one in Venice. At the same time, Shanghai has invested in more than 600 pumps on its waterways to pump out water and limit impacts on human settlements in case of a storm. The city also invests in embankment reinforcement projects all year long. This is an ongoing struggle: Shanghai is the most economically important metropolitan center for the Chinese economy. They simply cannot afford to lose it to climate change. But it is striking that there are these huge efforts to make Shanghai climate resilient, while at the same time the Chinese economy continues to emit carbon and all kinds of greenhouse gases that make long-term climate prospects seem darker and darker.
Judith Shapiro: Overall, the Chinese state is much more aware of climate change than the public. In general, Chinese people are more concerned about the impact of air or water pollution on their public health. Even among the highly educated, climate change often seems like an abstract concern. A few young people are following the example of activists like Greta Thunberg, but ground-level air pollution feels much more urgent when everyone is coughing and children can’t go out to play.
How do you see international cooperation between Europe and China on environmental grounds, mutual priorities, and projects?
Yifei Li: Environment, and climate in particular, is an area with real potential for partnerships between China and Europe, as well as China and the US. Europe has so much experience with carbon cap and trade for instance, and China seems eager to acquire and act on that knowledge. Also, unlike many of China’s Belt and Road partners in Africa and Central Asia, Europe has many strong legal institutions. The European Union’s Directorate-Generals for Energy and for Environment both have existing rules with a successful track record. As the Belt and Road continues to take root in countries like Italy or Germany, it will be interesting to see how EU officials can hold Chinese state investors accountable to European law and not to Chinese law. China and its foreign partners don’t have overarching legal institutions to govern the Belt and Road projects: all China does is follow the local legal provisions and regulatory codes. The real win-win scenario that could materialise would be if Belt and Road projects turn out to be beneficial to Europeans while still making sense to Chinese economic state investors. As of now, all we see is China partnering with countries like Sri Lanka, Djibouti and Tanzania, in political contexts where the local regulatory regime may be corrupt, minimal, or just generally ineffective. So, the EU will be a key test for the Belt and Road.
As the Belt and Road continues to take root in countries like Italy or Germany, it will be very interesting to see how EU officials can hold Chinese state investors accountable to European law and not to Chinese law.
Judith Shapiro: Commentators have suggested that US-China relations have been so damaged by Trump’s trade war that climate policy will be about competition rather than cooperation moving forward. I don’t agree that it must go this way. Looking back to the 2014 APEC summit, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping committed to work together on climate. These issues can be seen as wedges to renew a disrupted partnership. As someone who has devoted her life to the US-China relationship, I would like to see whether we can hold onto the possibility that the US and China can work closely on this issue. That’s not to say China should be excused for its human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet, for example, or the situation in the South China sea – but on climate alone, the US and China have a lot of ground for working together.
Yifei Li: It’s not about China and the EU or the US choosing to work together. We are in planetary crisis that is simply too urgent. If we are serious about making sure this planet is humanly habitable, working together is the only option.