Last year, President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Accord. By contrast, President Xi Jinping staked out China’s role as a committed player to tackle climate change. The territory of global environmental governance (GEG) seems to be undergoing a power reshuffle. Will China replace the United States as the new global environmental leader?
China observers are divided on this issue. British economist Lord Stern applauded Xi’s defense of the Paris agreement and noted China’s handsome investment in clean energy, proactive measures on green financing, and the rollout of the largest carbon trading system in the world. However, Matthew Stinson, a well-known political writer, cautioned against too positive an evaluation of the state’s capacity to implement those policies. He argued that the Chinese government’s various attempts to tackle environmental pollution are mere “Potemkin environmentalism” — in other words, shiny green policies promised by the party-state are intended only to create a façade of effective governance and to woo the international community.
Regardless of the credibility of China’s efforts, veteran expert Elizabeth Economy rightfully spotted the challenges of climate leadership on a global scale. The meteoric introduction of green policies domestically does not automatically translate to either commitment or readiness to steer international cooperation on climate change. The issue of global leadership entails “vision, creativity, perseverance, deft diplomacy and often cold, hard cash.” There is no political consensus within China that it is in the country’s interest to claim global environmental leadership. Therefore, it is vital to guide the debate of China’s green leadership toward specific dimensions and strategies.
Informed debate about whether China is replacing the United States at the helm of GEG should consider the discursive and normative dimension. What is missing from the current discussion is the fact that Xi never openly endorsed the norm of “liberal environmentalism,” which has undergirded various institutional achievements since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Xi’s promising speech allowed a new buzzword to garner attention: “Ecological Civilization,” (EC) a phrase enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party Constitution in 2012. Under the framework of Ecological Civilization, Xi claims to lead climate change cooperation, push for energy transformation, and cultivate China’s renewable energy sector.
An investigation of the phrase “Ecological Civilization” is pressing. The fact that Trump was able to override the internationally-recognized Paris Accord indicates the vulnerability of the normative underpinning of global efforts to tackle ecological challenges.
The original audience of EC was domestic: cadres, entrepreneurs, and Chinese citizens. It is one piece of the Party ideology jigsaw. Hansen and Liu called it a state-initiated “social-technical imaginary of China’s (and ultimately the world’s) future.” The linguistic choice of “civilization” taps into the party language of “spiritual civilization” in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Protests. It can be understood as a discursive tool to persuade the public that the Chinese Communist Party will guide the Chinese people to a sustainable future. That is to say, the achievement of an environmentally friendly future is grounded in the authoritarian one-party political system.
This phrase also “sinicizes” environmentalism, freeing the Chinese state from the trajectory of Western societies. China is signaling to the outside world that international pressure is no longer the driving force behind the Chinese government’s decision to introduce eco-friendly policies. It is necessary to resort to culture, tradition, and socialism to craft “environmentalism with Chinese characteristics.”
Another marker that distinguishes EC from liberal environmentalism is the augmented hierarchy between environmental and commercial interests. Key figures defining this term argue that Ecological Civilization is “sublimed” on the basis of commercial civilization. Xi conceptualizes EC as “green mountains and waters are golden and silver mountains and waters.” The Chinese president’s quote blurs the boundary between environmental and commercial interests, which deviates from the idea of liberal environmentalism that they are different concepts engendering potential conflicts. The harmonization between environmental and commercial interests has induced domestic players to jump on the bandwagon of Ecological Civilization. Local governments actively compete to be the brand ambassador of this term through international conferences.
The impoverished southwestern provincial capital Guiyang, for instance, was the first local jurisdiction to draw global attention to the term. Since 2009, the city has hosted the high-profile global conference Eco Global Guiyang. The conference borrows the fame of internationally renowned scholars, scientists, politicians, and entrepreneurs to talk business under the framework of EC. The commercial value of Ecological Civilization is considerable. The international limelight has brought Guiyang an increasing amount of foreign investment. The former mayor of Guiyang, Li Jun, observed that the positioning of the city as an “Ecological Civilization City” correlates to five years of the city’s fastest economic growth in the past six decades.
The phrase “Ecological Civilization” wiggled its way into the lexicon of the international community at the United Nations Environment Programme Governing Council meeting in 2013 in Nairobi. The Council appreciated the Chinese delegation’s promotion of EC as an effort to achieve sustainable development in light of national conditions. Although delegates were confused — and some aghast — to hear this term, the Chinese delegation reassured their counterparts that Ecological Civilization is a more comprehensive expression of sustainable development.
The key selling point of Ecological Civilization is the aspect of “institutional innovation.” The “innovation” of institutions also means that China is not able to offer a model for other countries to replicate its approach to environmental governance. It is an experience-based exploration to test different options of institutional setup. The abstract nature of this word indicates that the Chinese state is not prepared to diffuse its arguably effective environmental governance to countries that wish to follow suit.
As a counterpoint to liberal environmentalism, Ecological Civilization reinforces the symbiosis between economic development and environmental protection. It highlights the functional logic that commodifies environmentally friendly projects. As the Chinese government steps up its active involvement in GEG, it is revealing answers to the question of whether China is ready to lead the global environmental regime. What remains to be seen is whether Ecological Civilization is leading China and its followers toward an exit from liberal environmentalism and heralding a new era of so-called “authoritarian environmentalism.”
Dr. Heidi Wang-Kaeding is an Assistant Professor in Asian Politics in Department of Political Science at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. She is also a faculty member of the Trinity Centre for Asian Studies. This article was originally published on China-US Focus, an initiative of the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF). The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of China-US Focus.