China's environmental transformation: From the worlds bad guy to its good guy

China's recent transformation from the world’s environmental ‘bad guy’ to its ‘good guy’ in a matter of years is the result of the top-down enforcement of a green vision held by President Xi himself. But, as his environmentalism is nationalistic, not global, there is still need to broaden up the scope.

Comparing his climate policies to his predecessors, Xi’s is much more advanced. He is the first Chinese leader to enforce an environmentalism that is built upon the idea of nature as a ‘national asset’. He even famously said that "green mountains are essentially gold mountains".

Xi’s environmentalism relies on centrally controlled, top-down mechanisms though. In the past few years, the most visible environmental campaigns have been run by the Party’s disciplinary arm, detaining thousands of government officials for negligence and other offences. Public-interest litigation, for holding environmental violators to account, is now used frequently by government prosecutors.

This brand of environmentalism can be effective, to an extent. but as Scholar Bruce Gilley noted in his paper on China’s ‘Authoritarian Environmentalism’: "Environmental laws and regulations from the top down delivers short-term, low-hanging fruit results, but the lack of extensive deliberation may undermine long-term implementation".

To get popular consent Xi therefore use an appraisal system with clear indicators, rewards and punishments. This is according to him "most crucial" factor while creating an "ecological civilisation".

Even though China’s elaborate state machinery may be the envy of many governments struggling to ‘get things done’, its non-participatory way of doing business can lead to poor decisionmaking.

While China both embraces, appreciates and enforces environmental measures at home, it tends to export those same problems out of its borders. China has quickly become the world’s largest financier and builder of coal-power plants overseas. This is in stark contrast to what’s happening domestically, where, in early 2017, the government cancelled or mothballed 120 gigawatts of coal-power construction.

But building up coal power abroad is no contradiction under Xi’s ecological nationalism. Exporting environmentally destructive industries abroad and cutting them at home, as a way to strengthen the nation, is the core of China’s environmentalism.

As nationalism can not provide a sustainable solution to a global problem, Xi therefore need to broaden his model of environmentalism in the future.

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