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Book Talk: China Goes Green--Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro Discuss China's Coercive Environmentalism

December 23, 2020

In this post, introduces "Book Talk," a series of ongoing posts based on interviews with authors of recently published works about Chinese resource issues. In this post we discuss China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet (Polity 2020) by Yifei Li (Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU Shanghai) and Judith Shapiro (Chair, Global Environmental Politics, American University). Shapiro is the author of several books on Chinese environmental issues, including China's Environmental Challenges (Polity 2012, Second Edition 2016) and Mao's War against Nature (Cambridge 2001). She is also the co-author of Son of the Revolution (Knopf 1983), a memoir of the Cultural Revolution. Li, a native of Shanghai, has written widely on China's low-carbon development and environmental governance. Your correspondent interviewed them via Zoom on November 25, 2020. The complete interview can be found here.

On the face of it, China appears to be the leader in green governance, claiming to be developing a new "ecological civilization" thanks to massive domestic investment in clean technologies and a commitment to a low-carbon future. Li and Shapiro expected to tell a tale of state-led environmental change, but research into Chinese environmental policies at home and abroad instead revealed an intriguing story of environmentalism as a tool to develop Xi Jinping's vision of a geopolitically assertive and deeply authoritarian China. is featuring their new book because it so aptly portrays both the environmental risks China's faces, and those it presents for its neighbors and the international community as a whole. The book examines how the Chinese state asserts "green control" at home, in its border provinces, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and in the global commons.

Despite its poor environmental record, China portrays itself now as a world leader in global environmental diplomacy. On September 22, 2020 Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that his country would reach peak emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060. This could help the world avoid a catastrophic temperature increase--but only if China is willing and able to drastically change its approach to fossil fuels and power generation. Li explains that this pledge, as well as rapid progress in promoting renewable energy and imposing tough new regulations to curb waste and pollution (such as the ban on plastic bag use), have led experts to question whether an authoritarian system such as China's might be more effective than a democratic government in implementing environmental change.

In their study, Li and Shapiro examined if this was true--to their surprise, they found the opposite. They discovered that Chinese leaders, instead of employing authoritarian methods to achieve green goals such as renewable energy and banning plastic bags, are enforcing environmental policies to further their authoritarian agenda. As Li noted, environmental authoritarianism involves using environmental justifications to enable the Chinese authoritarian state to intrude into the lives of citizens, pacify unstable borderlands, continue repression of ethnic minorities, and use geopolitical leverage overseas.

To achieve these authoritarian aims, Chinese officials use techniques familiar to students of the Cultural Revolution, such as unrealistic targets and campaigns. Shapiro recounts a recent example, where farmers in Henan Province were ordered to stop using their threshing machines during harvest season so that local officials could meet an arbitrary target for reducing air pollution. As a result, the grain rotted in the fields. Local officials face strong pressure to enforce counterproductive policies because, if they fail to do so, they are demoted or fired. As Shapiro notes, this is " a killing the chicken to scare the monkey situation" and campaigns of this sort are likely to lack input from below and be short-lived--not at all a desirable model for sustainable environmental change.

Li and Shapiro document some success stories in their book, in cases where Chinese officials involved the people and the private sector. The waste import ban is an example of Chinese officials working with a variety of international and domestic actors, including NGOs and the domestic recycling industry. Shapiro also highlights some successes in limiting the ivory trade and appetites for shark fin soup, though she concedes that these are more manageable issues than controlling wildlife sales at countrywide wet markets. However, she notes that COVID-19 has called attention to the potential public health consequences of wildlife sales in wet markets, and there has been some more recent interaction between the government and the public on this issue that could potentially lead to new regulatory efforts.

Despite these areas of progress, Shapiro debunks ideas about democratizing China via environmentalism. She observes that Chinese civil society groups partner with environmentally minded institutions within the state to carry out green policies. Shapiro states that, while it's true that there has been space for environmental civil society that hasn't been available to human rights groups, this is because the environmental groups aren't trying to change the Chinese system. She explains that they're working to improve public health, preserve nature, or uphold pride; asking, why should China be the world's dumping ground for pollution? "Literally, the Chinese have said 'we're not going to take your trash anymore'," Shapiro emphasizes, adding that this is positive for planetary purposes, in that it forces developed countries to find ways of recycling their own waste.

Li argues that it's unrealistic to expect the Chinese state would let civil society take up the environmental space. In his view, environmentalism is a strategic choice. Li says, China's goal is to have a glorious future, a rejuvenated unique ecological civilization, and there's no chance the Chinese state would give up the environmental space it could use to achieve its geopolitcal and domestic goals. Shapiro further points out that the Chinese middle class is also placing more demands on the state to do something about the environment and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party rests on their ability to deal with pollution.

If China can fulfill its carbon neutrality pledge, this will be a great thing for the world, Li states, while cautioning that we don't know the details and the next five-year plan will reveal them. Li explains that it's important to understand how China pursues its carbon neutrality pledge. He gives the example of a Beijing sporting event that required multiple municipal permissions, in pursuit of a carbon-neutral outcome. This leads him to conclude that, if this is replicated throughout the economy, this would give the state an enormous amount of power to shape how individuals behave in society.

Where's the Risk?

China's Risk

The default solution to China's myriad environmental problems is technocratic. Shapiro notes that engineering experts from China's top universities play a dominant role, and that environmental expertise in China typically is housed within engineering schools. This has led to experiments with climate geo-engineering in Tibet, such as the Sky River Project, developed by China Aerospace and Technology Corporation, a state-owned military contractor. Some 500 fuel-burning machines have been installed out of a planned 10,000 to shoot silver iodide pellets to seed the clouds and make it rain. According to Shapiro, this effort to change the weather in Tibet goes well beyond efforts to ensure good weather for the Olympics and may not be taking into account potential adverse consequences.

For Li, the technology backgrounds that most Chinese leaders have explain their preference for technological solutions to environmental and development problems. He states that, if we look at China's West or the BRI, there's a tendency to look at development in black-and-white terms, glorifying urbanization and materialism. This approach doesn't understand or reflect the complexity of the nation or the richness of its cultural diversity. "Behind that unfortunate development, there's an overwhelming technocratic state of mind among Chinese officials," Li asserts.

In attempting to achieve carbon neutrality, Shapiro cautions that China may turn to some problematic renewable technologies such as dam-building, which has caused enormous controversy on China's southwestern borders and along the Mekong. The carbon neutrality pledge may make it more difficult for communities to protest against Chinese dam projects because they would be touted as a part of a global pledge to achieve carbon neutrality. Shapiro adds that this also could pave the way for developing more nuclear power plants which involve safety concerns.

Despite this carbon neutrality pledge, a large percentage of China's BRI projects focus on fossil fuels, which multilateral institutions and NGOs have criticized. "One problem with the way that countries are evaluated in terms of their carbon, is that the footprint often stops at the border," Shapiro notes. She points out that China can be popular with the recipient country by doing whatever the country wants, including building coal-fired power plants. This raises questions about how the BRI is furthering China's geopolitical and soft power goals.

Global Risk

Li argues that Chinese environmental policies need to be understood in the context of changes in international politics. He notes the global rise of illiberalism and the presence of "hungry authoritarian leaders along the BRI that are looking to Beijing for governance experience and technologies that will enable them to monitor their citizens." Li recounted Xi's proposal for a global QR code to monitor citizens for COVID-19, which would totally disregard privacy norms, but already has a successful track record in authoritarian BRI partner states such as Morocco and the UAE.

China is eager to play a greater role in global governance, including environmental governance, and, unfortunately, in Li's view, the UN endorses Chinese activities outside of China based on what the government says, rather than on the impact of these projects. Li finds it very unfortunate that the UN focuses on China's environmental discourse rather than the implementation or the outcomes of the policies. Li notes that scholars have been paying attention to the policy implementation gap in China and that this is a theme that runs throughout their book.

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