IT IS TIME that civic-minded Chinese become better acquainted with rubbish, suggests Chen Yu, a retired publisher from Shanghai, at the end of a Saturday spent counting litter on the banks of the Yangzi river. This afternoon’s survey has a scientific purpose. Undaunted by the muggy heat and mosquitoes of late summer, Mrs Chen and three dozen other volunteers sort river debris on a concrete breakwater, before weighing and recording each pile on a smartphone app. The heap of takeaway food packaging is dismayingly large, and there are a surprising number of shoes.
The data are being collected by a Chinese environmental group, Rendu Ocean, which runs 90 coastal monitoring sites with the help of about 1,000 volunteers. Mrs Chen, who also has an unpaid post helping neighbours navigate Shanghai’s strict new rubbish-recycling rules, is not surprised that the beach cleaners are mostly young and female. Older men can be conservative and easily embarrassed, she says, and this sort of volunteering is still rather new in China. Now 74, she is glad that youngsters are joining the cause: “It’s good for the country, as well as the environment.”
That patriotic note is echoed by Liu Yonglong, Rendu Ocean’s founder. He emphasises that his non-profit organisation’s work on the environment is complementary to that of the state. The enthusiasm of volunteers is “our comparative advantage to the government”, he says. “The disadvantage is that of course we are not as professional. That is where the government can come in.”
The official connections of Chinese NGOs often make foreign campaign groups wary, report the authors of “China Goes Green”, a new book that analyses the country’s stated ambitions to build an “ecological civilisation” and then share that model with the world. One of the co-authors, Judith Shapiro of American University in Washington, DC, records a discreet approach from a Dutch foundation that wanted to give an award to Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a well-known Chinese NGO, but wondered whether he was “sufficiently independent of the government”. Wrong question, replied Ms Shapiro, urging the fretful Dutch to understand the scrutiny applied to Chinese civil-society groups, including “chats” over tea with security officials. Mr Ma has enlarged the boundaries of what is allowed, she argued. His group has empowered citizens to report polluters, helping allies within government to enforce environmental rules.
Successful green policies in China share common elements, the book argues. They eschew rigid targets and top-down solutions that “cut everything with the same knife”, to borrow the Chinese phrase for one-size-fits-all prescriptions. Success stories also typically involve the state working with volunteer groups and seeking input from civil society. The book cites a reforestation scheme in the late 1990s in the Loess Plateau of north-western China. Designers spent two years consulting local farmers and scientists, tailoring their plans to local conditions. Orchards of walnuts and dates, shielded by desert willows and traditional landscaping techniques, slowly returned life to barren lands. Later, when impatient officials tried to scale up the scheme with the mass-planting of a few types of fast-growing, water-hungry tree, they failed.
As well as showing the limits of central planning, the book argues that China’s rulers use greenery to cloak their long-standing authoritarian ambitions. Nomads in Inner Mongolia or Tibet were once stripped of their herds and forcibly moved to drab housing blocks in the name of modernity. Now they are subjected to “ecological migration”, ostensibly to save grasslands from their grazing animals. Vast hydroelectric dams are still built over the objections of locals and environmentalists, but now in the name of fighting climate change. Abroad, China stresses the green credentials of its global infrastructure scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative. It delivers cheap technologies to developing countries. But its leaders’ green conscience is selective. In pursuit of national interests they send fishing fleets to pillage far-off seas. They sign opaque contracts with foreign governments to build coal-fired power stations, polluting mines and habitat-wrecking dams. They often rely on authoritarian allies to quell local protests.
Eco-authoritarianism as a means or an end?
In such cases, domestic and global environmental harms can be attributed directly to ruthless, top-down Chinese governance, suggests “China Goes Green”. That matters because a growing number of foreign observers ask whether China’s model of decisive, technocratic one-party rule might be Earth’s last, best hope, at a time when liberal democracies seem unable to act. Essays and books have appeared with titles like “Will China Save the Planet?” and “The Coming of Environmental Authoritarianism”. Such works typically praise Chinese promises to fight climate change, and its hefty investments in wind farms or electric vehicles. But then, too often, some foreign admirers turn to wondering—with varying degrees of regret—whether the coercive powers of a dictatorship may be the only way to curb unsustainable ecological behaviours.
Examine the record, and in reality Chinese authoritarianism more often undercuts green goals. At moments, it is hard to tell whether the driving force behind a green policy is a desire for a cleaner environment, or an obsession with social controls. Take Shanghai’s recycling rules, which came into force in July 2019. Though the regulations address a real problem, they are fiddly and onerous and reek of distrust for residents. Li Yifei of New York University in Shanghai, the other author of “China Goes Green”, reports conversations with rubbish inspectors in that city, discussing their powers to rummage inside residents’ refuse sacks and to punish those who dump garbage outside approved hours. Soon, several inspectors boasted, bins will have facial-recognition cameras to catch violators, bringing an “orderly future” a step closer. Yet a truly sustainable future needs more than order and rules: it relies on citizens’ free choices. Coercion cannot save the planet. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “More red than green”