When it comes down to it, it’s extremely difficult for Beijing to control a country of such a huge size and that’s actually more diverse than a lot of people realise. Basically, local governments pick and choose which sort of things to apply, and as often as not, they pick whichever ones will make more money for them. You see this again and again and again, that China’s environmental problems are not the result of the laws and policies. It’s really a big problem with implementation.
You also mention as a way to help the environment a return, so to speak, to Daoism and a more sustainable, nature-respecting or nature-loving philosophy.
It’s something that struck me being in China, and actually before I started researching this book, that the people who seemed most interested in the environmental issues, a lot of them did actually have something like religious or philosophical beliefs, though not all of them by any means. On one side, in particular, you have Tibetan Buddhism and some of the other ethnic minorities’ religions, particularly in Yunnan Province, which is very much about nature worship and respect for certain lakes and sacred mountains and so on. But also amongst the main Han majority population, going back a long way, you still have elements of Daoism.
It’s more a case [in Daoism] of letting nature go its own way. Don’t try and control everything and direct everything, it’s a more of a go-with-the-flow way of looking at the world. And that’s still alive to a degree. I guess the view of a lot of environmentalists is that China sort of needs to rediscover its Daoist side a bit more to overcome its problems and to appreciate nature a bit more.
The main point to make is that in Chinese society at the moment, partly because of the environment and because the society is changing so quickly, there really is this search for new values. That partly means picking up foreign ideas. It partly means picking out what’s the best of the communist system, and partly trying to keep the benefits of the capitalist market system. And it really is about, at least at the high levels and in academia, about thinking which views of our ancient past, our philosophies can we apply successfully today.
One of your recent articles was about the arrest of a well-known environmental activist. Is it dangerous to be an environmentalist in China?
I think it depends on how you do it. Going up against the authorities certainly is a lot riskier in China than in Britain, the US or Japan, and that’s certainly the case partly because there are big rules. But people also ignore the rules, especially at the local government level.