Environmental policy with Chinese characteristics

Coming to terms with the authoritarian alternative

Mark Beeson

Environment & energy, Government and governance | Asia, East Asia

27 February 2018

A centrally commanded economy can produce rapid industrial development and heavy pollution, but it may also be better at implementing the required solutions, Mark Beeson writes.

Climate change is a notoriously ‘wicked’ problem that defies easy – possibly any – solution. With the Trump Administration apparently abandoning its traditional leadership role on environmental issues, as on so many others, the great hope is that other states will take up the challenge of providing answers to what still looks like the greatest collective action problem the world has ever seen.

While many might have predicted that ‘communist’ China might have been part of the problem, until recently, few would have suggested it might also be part of the solution. That the People’s Republic of China is part of the problem is beyond doubt: as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, whatever China does – or doesn’t do – is going to matter enormously.

Yet centrally planned economies don’t have a great record of environmental management – just ask the Russians. While China may have introduced more market mechanisms into its economy, the state still plays a much larger role in determining what goes on, whether that means allowing the opening of new coal-fired power stations, or forbidding dirty industries to operate in some parts of the country but not others.

In this context, it is remarkable that China’s leaders are actually alert to the possibility that it has become increasingly politically difficult to put heavily polluting industries next to big urban centres. It is also testimony to both the extent and the limits of change in China.

More on this: Can China clean up its act?

On the one hand, the central government frets about the prospects of any form of social unrest. If there is one thing that quite literally gets up the noses of Beijingers, it is pollution and the poor air quality that threatens the health of their precious and rather scarce offspring. Civil society may not be anything like as well developed as it is in the West – or as many in the West expected it to be by now – but that doesn’t mean it is without influence.

On the other hand, though, China’s leaders are quite prepared to crack down on anyone who threatens the government’s potentially brittle social harmony, whether it is environmental activists or the polluters that effectively prod them onto the streets. One of the benefits of running a command economy is that you can boss people about and make things happen – for better or worse.

The good news is that China’s particular brand of ‘authoritarian environmentalism’ may be just the thing when trying to curb the worst polluters and environmental vandals. The bad news is that China’s increasingly centralised state and the concentration of power in the hands of Xi Jinping threatens to undermine what little progress has been made in encouraging political liberalisation.

The implicit trade-off that many Chinese seem willing to make for social stability, national rejuvenation and economic development, at the cost of authoritarian rule and limited political expression, seems set to continue. Nor is China’s expanding capitalist class likely to rock a boat that is allowing many to become fabulously wealthy.

More on this: China is leading the world for sales of electric vehicles

Admirers of and apologists for the Chinese system argue that it is pioneering new forms of deliberative democracy in which the wishes of the masses are heard and acted upon. Perhaps so. Something has clearly caused the central leadership to privilege environmental concerns over those about economic development – or they have in some of the big cities, at least.

And yet it is also clear that the authority and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party hinge on continuing economic development above all else. If the water shortages, air pollution, soil contamination or any of the other consequences of break-neck industrialisation force the Party to curtail the pace of growth – possibly revealing other underlying structural problems – all bets are off about the future course of development in China, be it economic or political.

The rest of the world has a major stake in the way China’s authoritarian leadership handles these interlocking, unprecedentedly complex problems. The global economy as well as the global environment is increasingly affected by and dependent on what China’s leaders do. If they manage to keep economic development going at the same time as improving environmental outcomes, it will not only be a triumph for the Chinese model of governance, but it will be one in the eye for the West generally and the US in particular.

When the prospects for international cooperation are dimmer than they have been for some time, this may have profound long-term consequences for the way the international system operates. For countries such as Australia, which may find itself in a Chinese sphere of influence, questions about the basis and efficacy of public policy may be about to get even more complicated than usual.

This article is based on the author’s paper in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies: ‘Coming to terms with the authoritarian alternative: the implications and motivations of China’s environmental policies’. All papers in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies are free to read and download.

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