In the run-up to this autumn’s leadership transition in China, the guessing game is in full swing. Who will be the new leaders? What are their policy priorities? What can we expect?
Li Keqiang is poised to become China’s number 2, taking over Premier Wen Jiabao’s spot. But we are relatively in the dark about what we might expect from Li when he takes over for Wen for two reasons: 1) his rise to prominence (at least among Western observers) is relatively recent, and 2) rising leaders in China don’t usually succeed by making their political beliefs loudly known (two exceptions may prove to be Wang Yang and Bo Xilai, depending on if they are promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee).
As Li, currently executive vice premier, prepares to take office, he has been promoting a number of social welfare issues. According to leadership expert Cheng Li, in this recent article in the Washington Quarterly, Li has shown interest in “affordable housing, food safety, public health care, climate change, and clean and renewable energy.”
It’s this last issue – clean and renewable energy – and the environment as a whole, that I would like to address. China has a number of challenges on the horizon (the end of the demographic dividend, rising unemployment, growing social inequality, etc), but one of the most significant is the country’s struggle with pollution and environmental degradation. Just to throw a few statistics out there: China is home to 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, 90 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted, and the Chinese government dealt with 580,000 environmental complaints in 2006. Beijing’s airport has recently seen a spate of flight delays and cancellations due to heavy smog, or “fog” as authorities have been calling it. As long as growth remains the government’s number one priority, environmental concerns will continue to take a backseat.
Li has certainly been actively promoting environmental and renewable energy issues. Last October, he attended the International Cooperative Conference on Green Economy and Climate Change and called for international cooperation in developing green economies. In November, he commented that environmental protection is a “part of China’s long-term growth strategies” and attended a joint China-Japan environmental forum where more than 50 energy and environment-related cooperation projects were signed. At a national conference on environmental issues in Beijing, attended by provincial ministers and governors, Li said: “Providing basic environmental quality for its people is an essential public service for any government. It is necessary to improve the quality of life and provide a favorable environment with clear water, blue skies and uncontaminated soil.” He also called for better drinking water, better urban sewage treatment, stricter air quality standards, better hazardous waste management, and improved food safety measures.
He’s talking the talk, but will he walk the walk? Can we expect much from him on the environment? There’s certainly the danger that this is all talk. Indeed, we saw much of the same from Wen. In 2003, Wen was a vocal supporter of Green GDP, an initiative that was intended to quantify environmental degradation and thereby create incentives for local governments to improve environmental standards. But despite Wen’s initial support, the plan died a quiet death in 2007. Indeed, many of the social welfare plans espoused by Wen didn’t come to fruition. Additionally, as a member of the populist faction, it’s almost expected that Li would support these types of social welfare issues. If the economy slows, he would almost certainly tone down support for environmental protections in favor of maintaining the growth numbers that the central government relies on for social stability.
On the other hand, there has been a growing awareness of the severity and consequences of environmental degradation. And Li is also following the party line – China’s 12th Five Year plan does call for a significant reduction in energy consumption. Environmental issue are also swiftly becoming a trigger for social unrest. In December, protests erupted in the southern city of Haimen over concerns about a new coal-fired plant. In August 2011, citizens protested a new plant in Dalian that would produce paraxylene, a highly polluting substance used in making polyester. These are just a few examples of the emergence of environment and pollution-related protests.
Finally, Li is very smartly couching environmental protection in economic terms. In December, he said: “It is estimated that the output of green sectors – pollution treatment and energy saving – can exceed 10 billion yuan ($1.58 billion) during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) period.” He is clearly thinking beyond populist “campaign rhetoric,” analyzing how to give the issue political traction.
At this point, we can only speculate about what the future might bring. Though Li has been outspoken about environmental issues, political infighting, factional compromises, and potential future crises could make it difficult – or impossible – for him to pursue this issue in the future.