China Power | Environment | East Asia

Can China Lead the Post-COVID World Toward Sustainability?

The pandemic is an opportunity to drastically rethink development. China is best positioned to take up the challenge.

By John Pabon for
Can China Lead the Post-COVID World Toward Sustainability?
Credit: Pixabay

It seems you can’t scroll through social media without running into some inspirational quote like the one from Sarah, Duchess of York:

Mother Nature has sent us to our rooms…like the spoilt children we are. She gave us time and she gave us warnings. She was so patient with us. She gave us fire and floods, she tried to warn us but in the end she took back control.

Others go on to promulgate a new normal coming out of the pandemic. The pending utopian era will be one where humanity is kind, thoughtful, and lives within our ecological means. This notion of a new normal is certainly a noble one. That’s because the first half of 2020 is the closest humanity has ever come to a balanced ecosystem since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The pandemic has brought about a world without the adverse impact of international travel, factories belching pollutants from their stacks, and high urban carbon footprints.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, and we’ve all had a glimpse of what the world could be, a call for a different way forward was inevitable. To make this new normal a reality, though, someone is going to have to lead the charge. It will take a unique combination of political willingness, technological know-how, and quite a bit of capital to get things moving. All things considered, China may be the best candidate for the job.

The Willingness

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Prior to the pandemic, China’s leaders were already working hard at changing the country’s image as a gluttonous, polluting behemoth. Economic and policy machinations sought to shift China’s image from the world’s factory to its premier service provider. A keen understanding of the societal impacts of breathing polluted air, drinking dirty water, and eating contaminated food also hit close to home.

A turning point came in 2014 when Premier Li Keqiang made a landmark speech criticizing China’s “blind development” and calling for the Chinese people to “declare war” on pollution. President Xi Jinping echoed these comments a few years later at the 19th Party Congress, declaring a new historic juncture in China’s development. “The Chinese nation…has stood up, grown rich, and become strong – and it now embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation…It will be an era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.”

China’s big coming-out party on the world stage was at Davos in 2017. There, Xi made a laudable address to the world’s elite supporting globalization, international cooperation, and environmental stewardship. “It is important to protect the environment while pursuing economic and social progress – to achieve harmony between man and nature, and harmony between man and society.” He also upheld the primacy of the Paris Agreement at a time when the United States announced it was pulling out of the plan. Xi admonished the Trump administration in all but name. In this, he vaulted China to a very unlikely leadership position on climate issues.

Over the past five years, the Chinese government has also demonstrated its understanding of the intimate link between sustainability and positive economic development. At the recently concluded Two Sessions, the most important events on the Chinese political calendar, Premier Li Keqiang laid out a continuing plan to trod a sustainable way forward for the country. His Work Report, which sets out the government’s policy priorities and agenda for the coming year, emphasized environmentally friendly business operations, poverty alleviation, and next-generation technologies.

The Wisdom

A new normal will take more than just new thinking. It’s also going to need technologies of the future. To be clear, a new normal doesn’t mean a return to the Dark Ages or going off the grid. Rather, we need to find ways to streamline industry, eliminate wasteful practices, and create the tools that underpin such an evolution. Complicating matters will be the need for everything to make economic sense as well. In all this, China already has a significant head start.

The Chinese government’s work at streamlining industry and reducing waste began over a decade ago. The initial target was outmoded state-owned enterprises, but this has evolved. In 2014, 21,000 of the 22,000 workshops in Zhejiang’s Pujiang county, the world’s center for crystal glass production, were shut down for violating environmental regulations, mostly related to wastewater effluents. Between 2017 and 2018, Chinese regulators continued shoring up enforcement mechanisms. According to governmental records, nearly 40 percent of China’s factories had been shut down during that period.

The government also allowed individuals to be held accountable for their actions. During this same period, officials from more than 80,000 factories were punished for their parts in flouting environmental regulations. These included managers and supervisors as well as Party officials in areas where such factories operated. The ultimate result, as with other elements of society running counter to China’s desired narrative, was a very public cleaning of house.

Factories that survived the onslaught, or were able to reopen, did so because they embraced future technologies. The Chinese government is doubling down on technology to green its manufacturing sector. Long seen as the world’s factory, China is evolving toward a more service-oriented, import-driven economy. To spur this, Xi has called for a “robot revolution.” He intends to automate the country’s factories, thus improving efficiencies across the entire global supply chain.

Li also devoted a considerable amount of space in his Work Report to covering what he dubbed China’s “New Infrastructure.” In this, he emphasized technologies to drive future sustainable industrial development, “…strengthen new in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment, de­velop a new gen­er­a­tion of in­for­ma­tion net­works, ex­pand 5G ap­pli­ca­tions, build power recharg­ing sta­tions, pro­mote clean en­ergy ve­hi­cles, spur new con­sumer de­mand, and as­sist up­grades in in­dus­try.” Rather than making futile attempts to rekindle dead industries, as the United States is doing in the Rust Belt, China is making the strategic investments necessary to build the foundations for tomorrow’s industries today.

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The Wealth

Without the right amount of capital, though, even the best-laid plans are likely to fail. For officials in Beijing, earmarking budgets for critical projects has become second nature.

The country’s penchant for investment is most notable with large-scale infrastructure projects. China spends more on infrastructure than the United States and European Union combined. Thanks to these investments, China has the world’s longest high-speed rail network and efficient transportation hubs that connect even the most remote parts of the country, and is taking its infrastructure prowess abroad with the Belt and Road Initiative.

When it comes to building a sustainable future, China is now the world’s leader in sustainable investment. Beijing has invested close to $400 billion in domestic green technologies since 2017, more than twice that of the entire European Union, and an additional $250 billion on global projects. China created the world’s first taxonomy on sustainable investment, which is now the global gold standard in impact investment. Public transportation in numerous cities, like the southern megalopolis of Shenzhen, runs entirely on electric vehicles. The government has also put a focus on the nebulous concept of innovation, a critical area needed if the new normal is going to have the technology it needs.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees a new normal will take root. While a sizable portion of humanity may seriously want things to be different, economic, political, and business realities are likely to get in the way. Around the world, governments are reopening for business prematurely to quell discontent from frustrated business owners and consumers. Squabbling, trade disputes, and political posturing are forcing us further and further into our national fiefdoms. Even the environment is already taking a hit. Findings on pollution in China from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air point to a rebound in pollutants after easing of the lockdown, with some surpassing last year’s levels.

None of this is a reason to become despondent. Now, more than ever before, we have a deeper understanding of the importance of a more sustainable future. Perhaps it won’t be China that leads the way into this next generation, but every one of us. To pull from another quote making the rounds on social media, this time by Irish comedian Johnny Corn, “…we have a chance to do something extraordinary. As we head out of this pandemic we can change the world.”

John Pabon is an expert on strategic communications, sustainable development, and stakeholder engagement and the founder of Fulcrum Strategic Advisors.