New Directions in Chinese Studies: China and the Environment [from Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies]

May 15, 2015

from the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

New Directions in Chinese Studies: China and the Environment 

By: Ian M. Miller, Ph.D. Candidate, East Asian Languages and Civilizations

In mid-March, as part of Harvard President Drew Faust's trip to China, she discussed climate change with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and gave a speech at Tsinghua University on the role that universities can play in combatting climate change.[1] President Faust remarked that "global problems require global partners," and indeed China has been playing an increasing role in passing both domestic environmental protection laws and supporting international climate accords.[2]

Yet some commentators have questioned the significance of President Xi's commitment to halting climate change. They note that he planned for carbon emissions peak around 2030, when they are likely to peak then even without government intervention.[3]  And as the Harvard Crimson noted, President Faust has downplayed the importance of divesting Harvard from fossil fuel companies to reduce its climatic impact, emphasizing climate research instead.[4]  Indeed, both Harvard and China have expressed a trust in scientific solutions to climate change, rather than facing the difficult decision to reduce fossil fuel consumption at a cost of slower growth.

This is in keeping with China's historic tendency to try to engineer its way out of environmental problems. From more than two millennia, rulers chose to dike the Yellow River at the cost of catastrophic flooding, rather than give up the valuable farmland on its banks. More recently, projects like the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Transfer Project have drawn criticism for choosing to sustain economic growth in the short term at the cost of long-term environmental risk. While climate change brings China into an entirely new realm of global collaboration, the politics of environmental protection are much in keeping with thousands of years of development.

This is not to say that China lacks a record of environmental protection. While international influences are often credited with the development of environmental governance in China, it is clear that it has domestic roots as well. For hundreds of years, the environmental discourse of fengshui was used to protect woodland, and to oppose mining and other destructive industry in sensitive areas.  In the 20th- century, fengshui forests became the basis of the modern forestry program, a fact obscured by the use of Western-derived terminology like ecology forests (shengtai lin 生态林). More recently, there has been a fluorescence of environmental NGOs, while films like Under the Dome (qiongding zhi xia 穹顶之下) and Beijing Besieged by Waste (wei cheng laji 围城垃圾) have drawn widespread attention to environmental issues in China. Indeed, Under the Dome has been called “China’s Silent Spring” in reference to the 1962 Rachel Carson book widely credited with launching the environmentalist movement in the United States.

Yet the state’s response to private environmentalism has been mixed at best. Environmental NGOs are closely monitored by the government and received little encouragement outside of their role in Beijing’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics.[6] For its part, Under the Dome has been the subject of both official praise and state censorship.[7] It is clear that the current foment of environmental awareness among Chinese citizens and pressures from the international community have led the Chinese leadership to make major strides toward stronger environmental regulations. But for the moment it appears unlikely that the government will allow private advocacy to flourish, or that it will diverge from the longstanding preference for technological solutions over limits to growth.