In the last ten years, China has begun transitioning to a lower greenhouse economy in an attempt to fix widespread environmental destruction that resulted from policies that prioritised quick economic growth over nature conservation. To achieve this goal of creating what president Xi Jinping called an “ecological civilisation”, China faces the challenge of balancing industrialisation and community well-being with environmental protection through reform programs. These programs are based on the Confucian principle of maintaining harmony between social production and the environment by, for example, protecting natural resource rights; establishing better systems for protecting arable land and water; and creating a green financing system (Chun, 2015). The government has also proposed conducting natural resource audits when officials leave their posts so that there will be an incentive to consider environmental impacts since one will be held accountable for any damage during their time in office. Regular audits are already being carried out in locations such as Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia.
According to Dr. Heidi Wang-Kaeding (2018) from Trinity College Dublin, with the idea of “ecological civilisation” China seeks to become a global leader in climate change cooperation and support its economy by developing its own renewable energy sector. Strategically, the push for energy transformation makes sense. For one, China remains the world’s second largest energy-consuming country after the United States, and coal accounts for more than 75 percent of total commercial energy use (International Energy Agency, 2018). This not only makes China dependent on countries that it imports coal from, but it also increases environmental risks as poor mining practices lead to large-scale solid waste, water and land contamination, and increased methane emissions. Secondly, becoming a leader in sustainability means that other countries that lack technological capacity and resources will rely on Chinese expertise to show them how to adopt alternative energy practices. It allows China to become an even more important partner when countries deal with present and future challenges as they will be inclined to reach out to China for assistance and investment. Finally, although “ecological civilisation” was primarily aimed at domestic audiences as the Communist Party sought to promote the idea that an environmentally friendly future has its base in an authoritarian one-party system, the concept also signals to the outside world that China is shaping the existing rule-based order in its own way (Xinhua, 2017). For the government, the ‘Chinese way’ means to look to its Confucian and socialist traditions to introduce eco-friendly policies that are grounded in commercial production. As President Xi stated in 2017, “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver” (lushui qingshan jiushi jinshan yinshan). In other words, environmental and commercial development should go hand in hand and are not necessarily conflicting concepts.
Although in the past, the United States was seen as the ‘leader of the free world’ and protector of human rights, America is now becoming one of the greatest obstacles to world peace and cooperation, according to Chinese officials. The delay of signing the Kyoto Protocol and exiting out of the Paris Climate Accord exacerbates the global warming problem significantly since increases of greenhouse gases in America, especially carbon dioxide, over the last few years is fuelling global warming at a significant rate. Consequently, the rise of global governance in China signifies that the country could step up to the opportunity of becoming a new global environmental leader.
In a recent report, it was highlighted that China’s domestic environmental policies were making clear positive impacts. As Gretchen Daily, professor of environmental science at Stanford notes: “In the face of deepening environmental crisis, China has become very ambitious and innovative in its new conservation science and policies and has implemented them on a breathtaking scale.” For instance, by enacting policies and funding software that monitor environmental areas that should be protected or restored, concentrations of PM2.5, the tiny particles that indicate the level of air pollution, decreased by 40 percent in 2017 from 2013 levels in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. Considering that high levels of PM2.5 were responsible for the deaths of more than 5.5 million people who contracted diseases relating to air pollution, the World Bank stated that economic loss for high air pollution has been about US$5 trillion annually since 2013. Moreover, following the progress of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) campaign in 2016, local government have also been active in closing illegal mines and unlicensed hydropower plants in Gansu Province while increasing monitoring of sewage treatment plants. Although mining in general is a significant part of China’s economic expansion, the far western Xinjiang region suspended mining in one of its biggest natural reserves. The official Xinhua news agency reported that poor regulation and a lack of enforcement standards led to soil contamination, making parts of land and water supplies unfit for human use, potentially threatening public health. All up, 69 mining projects in Xinjiang’s Altun national reserve were stopped and mining activities within the reserve, which also threatened endangered species such as Tibetan wild yak and donkey, were banned.
The introduction of the Environmental Protection Tax Law since the 1st of January, 2018 was another way of providing companies with a reason to cut emissions and improve production technology since businesses were being fined based on the amount of pollutants they discharged each year. After being the first company to get a tax reduction for having lower pollution discharge than China’s national standard for the chemical sector, a financial representative from BASF Application Chemical Co. released a statement highlighting that the company will continue to “optimize our manufacturing techniques to reduce pollution.” All around China, over 260,000 companies, public institutions, and business operators were required to pay environmental tax. Such initiatives show that through funding, improved technologies and tight policies, China is making environmentally sustainable outcomes in the short-term.
For some analysts, these results even have the potential to produce positive developments in less-developed countries under the Belt and Road Initiative. Gianluca Ghiara, the national vice chair of Environment Working Group at the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China stated that the Belt and Road Initiative was an attractive opportunity for African countries who could gain from enhanced cooperation in areas that promote ecological and inclusive development. The idea is that China will use its growing experience in transitioning towards being a green energy source country in the infrastructure developments it is setting up along the Belt and Road. However, loan recipient countries should not assume that the infrastructure and technology from China will create a rosy economic future for their economies. Some of the projects along the Belt and Road have the potential to drain local resources and produce infrastructure deficits that have little benefit to surrounding communities (Arewa, 2016). As Biswas and Hartley (2017) argue, so far the Belt and Road Initiative “may grab headlines but it is no panacea.” For instance, at present Sri Lanka is unable to pay back debts to Chinese banks for largely unused ports, airports, and highways. The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Southeast Sri Lanka was designed to handle one million passengers every year but now currently deals with 12 passengers per day or less than one percent of the original projections that cost the country US$210 million.
Environmental issues are also of concern. Even though President Xi declared that the Belt and Road Initiative development would be “green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable”, a significant amount of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor investment is powered by coal-fired power plants. In Bangladesh, concerns about pollution led to violent protests in 2016 against the coal-fired power plant that was constructed by Chinese firms. Professor William Laurance, a James Cook University researcher even warned that China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure program is the “riskiest environmental project in human history” as over 1,700 critical biodiversity areas will be impacted by Chinese funded projects for roads, oil and gas pipelines, and hydroelectric dams. Although China has claimed that the Belt and Road will be distinguished by its sustainability portfolio, there have been many examples of exploitative Chinese firms going into developing nations who are unable to enforce and monitor environmental standards. On the one hand, it may seem that China is doing a much better job at improving its environment domestically than through its international interactions, but a publicly released national inspection found that environmental protection in areas like Tibet did not meet the requirements of the central government and public. In the Tibet case, more than 240 rural road projects were started without environmental protection approval, and a majority of scenic spots did not have sewage treatment facilities. In addition, management of hazardous solid waste was problematic as more than 6,000 officials were held accountable for environmental damage, according to the region’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Using Confucianism’s principle of harmony to underpin efforts to protect the environment has had only a minor impact and much of this Confucian rhetoric is used to appeal to the public. Improper afforestation in China’s drylands, for instance, was designed by some local governments as a response to growing concerns about the region’s tree felling. This project resulted in more environmental degradation in the area. Such mistakes show that long-term environmental protection involves coordination and supervision of environmental protection bureaus as well as increased engagement with the science community. Relying on short-term successes and quick profits could negatively affect China’s economy and reputation by undermining both its domestic and international initiatives.
Despite the Chinese government’s attempts to ban its citizens from writing about controversial topics that criticize the authorities, in recent years a number of intellectuals have adopted a liberal perspective in their work and have been actively reporting and theorizing about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Even in the online world, where social media users have to use hashtags and emojis to avoid censorship bans, more Chinese people are being influenced by global trends and are becoming vocal about their experiences of social inequality and environmental pollution. Much to the dislike of the government, even the #MeToo campaign that started in America spread to China after a Weibo user documented about her experiences of sexual harassment at Beihang University in Beijing. However, even after the authorities responded to the scandal by blocking the hashtag #MeTooInChina, online users created nicknames like #RiceBunnyInChina to continue the campaign and highlight the harassment. Critics have noted that attempts to block such conversations from occurring disables intellectual debate, isolates Chinese people from the global community, and generally silences groups from having their voices heard.
China’s censorship laws also have implications for its relations overseas. As a recent article in the Times Higher Education has stated, the new era of increased Chinese economic power poses a threat to academic freedom across the world and could have many universities blocking content to ensure their ongoing partnerships with China. Last year, Cambridge University Press removed hundreds of pages and book reviews on politically sensitive topics, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibet, and Taiwan, from their online journal after a Chinese government agency warned that it would block access to Cambridge’s website. Although Cambridge reinstated these articles after claiming that it had received a “justifiably intense reaction from the global academic community”, it has also been reported that Springer Nature had censored some of its content in response to demands made by Chinese export agencies. William Callahan, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, states that as civil society has been shrinking in China since President Xi took office in 2012, the country’s increasing influence has meant that Westerners should be “concerned about how China is censoring what we’re doing all around the world” as the country tries to increase its power by exporting censorship.
As some states respond to the issue of Chinese foreign interference- for example, in 2017 Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke Mandarin and declared that Australia will “stand up” against any power meddling in its national affairs- writers within China have also been trying to revive liberal ideas by publishing their papers through foreign publishers. In their research on liberalism in China, Tang and McConaghy (2018) note that based on what they have come across in foreign and less-known Chinese journals, the major areas that are being discussed in this field include the meaning of China’s 20th-century history, especially the Cultural Revolution; the social inequality created by market reforms; statism and the rejection of Euro-American political models; and cultural pluralism in twenty-first century China.
It should be noted that Chinese liberals are not the same as the ‘New Left’ school in China or the ‘New Confucians’. While the New Left are critical of the class antagonisms that have been created by marketization and decentralizing the economy, the New Confucians seek to reinvigorate Confucian practices as a way of strengthening national solidarity and cultural identity as a way of maintaining political stability. In contrast, the liberalists are most opposed to the party-state. In the journal Southern Weekly (南方周末), Zhu Xueqin stated that following the principle that people are born noble and free from restraint in action or speech, economically, the liberalists believe in the market economy and not state planning. Politically, the school advocates for representative democracy, constitutionalism, and legality against dictatorship of the majority. Finally, in terms of ethics, liberalism advocates protection of the individual who, it is argued, should never be used as a means for any abstract purpose as was the case between 1966 and 1976 when more than one million people died under the policies implemented by Mao and other Party leaders.
Historically, the One-Hundred Day reforms in 1898 was the first time when liberal ideas emerged to challenge the Qing autocracy in China. From the 1920s to the 1940s, liberal intellectuals tried to theorise about the relevance of liberalism compared to all other ideological alternatives that were often more attractive to people who sought an immediate political solution for the country’s nation-building project. However, under the Chinese communists, who interpreted liberalism as meaning that an individual could do what they wanted regardless of the circumstances and interests of others, liberalism almost entirely disappeared from public discussion as it became associated with bourgeois ideology and the West.
In that case, it was significant that editor of the pro-democracy journal Beijing Spring, Hu Ping, wrote the book On Freedom of Speech (1979), which advocated for liberal principles in post-Maoist China. After Deng Xiaoping helped direct the country towards economic reforms and the country began to integrate into the world economy, the political atmosphere in China created opportunities for the return of the liberal discourse. Especially from the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of books by English and American authors were published as the demand for democracy and representation created traction in extending the liberal perspective throughout society.
At the same time, many intellectuals also reacted to globalisation and China’s increasing global standing by turning to ‘Chinese-made’ solutions to address the country’s social problems. Rejecting the idea that Western political models are adequate paradigms for development and modernisation, the majority of Chinese writers have resisted discussions on democracy and liberalism and have instead focused more on ideas of social democracy underpinned by Marxist–Leninist principles. The authorities have allowed groups such as the New Confucians more political space as they attempt to create a new universalism that is superior to Western liberalism and not historically associated with slavery, colonialism, and racial exclusion. This school of thought aligns with the government’s aims of establishing China as a civilizational force that can become a dominant cultural model in the twenty-first century.
Although proponents of liberalism such as Xu Youyu argue that the country’s Confucian-nationalist project uses a deeply distorted version of the past that ignores the country’s history of linguistic, economic, and demographic heterogeneity, antagonism to Western political thought has meant that Chinese liberalism remains on the margins. The Party has continued to tighten its control over the media, religious groups, and civil society associations as the government introduces cybersecurity and foreign NGO laws and increased internet surveillance. A renewed push for ideological conformity has undermined earlier rule of law reforms and uses nationalism as a pillar for government legitimacy. This raises questions about the future of China’s ideological plurality, the implications and meaning of using Confucianism as a political project, and whether liberalist thought can once again gain traction during Xi Jinping’s rule.
Book Extract- The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能
Since its founding in 1949, China has developed from an extremely poor country into a global power. After developing its industrial system under Chairman Mao, China opened up to the global economy and became the world’s second largest economy, maintaining a double-digit growth rate for over 30 years. To do this without engaging in war and maintaining stable domestic conditions has been unprecedented in modern history. For other countries, China represents an alternative path to development that involves applying development models that match different histories, cultures, and national and regional conditions.
In 2012, President Xi promoted the ‘Chinese Dream’ as a vision for China’s development over the next decades. Through a top-down political campaign, the Dream has been a main theme in the majority of Xi’s public speeches and in Chinese media and scholarly publications. In 2014, for example, 8,249 articles with “China dream” (zhongguo meng, 中国梦) in the title had been published within China according to the CNKI China academic journals database (Callahan, 2014). By 2017, this number has increased to 53,679 articles.
The concept of the Dream is based on China’s historical experience and the desire for rejuvenation following the Century of Humiliation (bainian guochi, 百年国耻) and colonialization by Western powers. Chinese people have been presented with many ideas describing collective aspirations for national independence, common prosperity, and the recovery of the Chinese nation from feudal backwardness. The Dream combines all of these past slogans, including ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious society’, by emphasising sustainable development, common prosperity, and independence from foreign domination through a system of socialism with Chinese characteristics guided by the Communist Party of China.
The following is an extract from Maya X. Guo’s book The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能. In it, Guo interviews a number of Chinese academics on topics around China’s development, including the prospect for democracy, the future of socialism in Chinese modernisation, and Chinese maritime strategy. In the section titled Century-old Quest for Renewal: The CPC’s Evolving Narrative and Historical Mission, Guo interviews Professor Cao Jinqing from East China University of Science and Technology. The following views and opinions expressed in this extract are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin.
Maya: In his first speech after being elected China’s president on March 17, 2013, Xi Jinping gave a detailed account of the Chinese Dream, a dream of the great renewal of the nation. How do you understand this concept in the context of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) narrative?
Cao Jinqing: By proposing this concept, the CPC has revisited the narrative of the century-old pursuit of national independence and modernisation. The Chinese Dream means the completion of a modernately prosperous society in all respects when the CPC celebrates its centenary, and turning China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) marks its centenary. The Two Centenary goals are based on a historical narrative different from the CPC’s conventional narrative. The new narrative appeals to all those who remain committed to the quest for national renewal, including Chinese people on the mainland and in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as well as overseas Chinese.
Maya: How is it different from the previous narrative? How did the previous narrative justify the CPC’s ruling status?
Cao Jinqing: The previous narrative was a Marxist-Leninist narrative. It was also a conventional narrative of the CPC. The CPC’s vision of Chinese history provides an important ideological perspective from which to explain the legitimacy of its political power. The publication of Chairman Mao Zedong’s article “On New Democracy” in 1940 marked the establishment of the Party’s conventional vision. The article answered questions about China’s past, present and future in Marxist terms: China had evolved through the stages of a primitive society, a slave society and a feudal society like other countries. Had it not been for the invasion of imperialist powers, China would have gone on to evolve into a capitalist society. The Opium War (1840-42) interrupted its routine course of development and reduced the country to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. The exploitation of imperialism and feudalism was the root cause of China’s poverty and decline. Under those circumstances, fighting against imperialism and feudalism was the top priority of the Chinese nation. Going forward, China would experience in turn a new-democratic society, a socialist society and finally a communist society.
The theory redefined the history of the Chinese nation, giving rise to a comprehensive new vision of history. This vision, which applied the philosophy of Marxist materialist history to China, was one of the most important reasons for the success of the CPC. As it satisfied their spiritual needs, it attracted numerous disillusioned and hopeless intellectuals to Yan’an, the onetime headquarters of the CPC, making the small town along the Yellow River a gathering place of China’s top talents. One of the prime reasons why the CPC defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) in the civil war was that the former seized the ideological high ground. It did so precisely by establishing a new vision of history. In keeping with this vision, Mao led the Chinese nation in advancing socialism. He exercised political power confidently because he believed he was on the side of truth.
Maya: Why is a vision of history so important? How could it make such a big impact on Chinese intellectuals?
Cao Jinqing: That’s because China is a nation imbued with a strong historical awareness. China does not have a Western-style religion or philosophy. The role of history in China is equivalent to those of history, philosophy and religious beliefs combined in the West. History maintains the cultural identity of the Chinese nation. Qing Dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng (1738-1801) made a good point when he said, “All the six classics come down to history.”
History lays the foundation of the Chinese culture. When China was a traditional agrarian society, the Chinese lived in clans. Each clan had its history, which helped it evolve by building upon past achievements. While ordinary people were attached to their clans, officials cared about their fiefdoms and the entire kingdom, which also had a history. The Chinese have long been aware of the value of visions of history. The classic works Spring and Autumn Annals and Records of the Grand Historian enabled us to identity with out common ancestor Huangdi and our common history. Visions of history are the center of the Chinese culture. At a minimum, they represent the shared cultural identity of the Han ethnic group.
After the Opium War, which marked the beginning of the modern era in China, Chinese intellectuals focused on reshaping China’s vision of history as they learned from the West to promote the country’s economic, political and cultural transition. Creating a new vision of history was considered a pivotal task for those who aspired to state power. The trailblazer in this field was Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a political thinker and reformer who accepted the Western evolutionist philosophy of history. After the May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal political movement from 1919, a group of radical intellectuals turned to Marxist-Leninism. I think the most powerful past of this theory is its vision of history, with which the CPC reconstructed China’s history based on the historical stages of the West.
Regressive history and cyclical history are two traditional Chinese visions of history. The theory of cyclical history, coupled with the Mandate of Heaven, justifies the replacement of an old dynasty by a new one and the rule of a new emperor. The CPC modified this traditional narrative and repackaged it in Marxist language. But the underlying idea remained the same: Those who gain popular support will gain state power; those who lose popular support will lose state power. The CPC’s revolutionary narrative is consistent with the Confucian view of revolution: The Party, which represented the will of the people, overthrew a regime that had lost the Mandate of Heaven…In the CPC’s narrative the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was replaced by “rules of historical development.”
The Chinese Dream has returned to the narrative of the 100-year pursuit of national independence and modernisation, a process in which the Chinese strived to save China from being conquered, bring prosperity to the nation, and catch up with Western powers.
For the latest updates on the Chinese Dream, see Xinhua’s (2016) Chinese Dream webpage.