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.