China’s Bad Bet on the Environment

It was a moment for the Chinese people to savor. For nearly two years, they had called on Beijing to take action on its air pollution crisis. Websites exploded with pictures and data, documenting the terrifying health and economic costs of the pollution: a drop in life expectancy of 5.5 years in the country’s heavily polluted north and an estimated $112 billion in labor and health care costs in 2005. Experts and citizens shared information, expressed views in polls, and demanded change. Finally, in September 2013, faced with mounting social discontent, Premier Li Keqiang announced a sweeping new plan to try to address the country’s air quality problems.

Environmental activism in China is not new. For almost two decades, the environment has been at the forefront of civil society development. There are more than 3,500 formally registered environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — and at least that many un-registered — throughout the country.  Chinese citizens routinely protest against local governments’ environmental practices. In 2013, the environment surpassed illegal land expropriation as the largest source of social unrest in the country.

Despite this history of citizen activism, however, Premier Li Keqiang’s policy announcement stands out as one of the first times that the central government has directly responded to popular pressure, and it may be one of the last for some time. It is far from certain that this victory for Chinese people power will be repeated in the near future.

Rather than embrace these signs of greater political participation, President Xi Jinping and the rest of China’s new leadership are working to constrain civil society. They have taken aim at the Internet, passing regulations to limit the ability of the Chinese people to share information and to undermine the influence of the country’s most popular billionaire bloggers (including some involved in clean air campaigns).

China’s leaders have also moved to contain the role of environmental NGOs by advancing an amendment to China’s environmental protection law that will bar those groups from bringing lawsuits against polluters. If it succeeds, only 13 organizations in the entire country will be able to launch environmental lawsuits in court. As China’s top environmental lawyer, Wang Canfa, has noted, the regulation is “driving public litigation into a dead end.”

This does not mean all civil society is dead. Environmental NGOs are continuing their work on a range of politically neutral issues like environmental education and energy efficiency. And the Chinese people are still taking to the streets to protest environmentally harmful projects. During the latter half of 2013, for example, Chinese citizens forced local governments to cancel a range of large-scale projects, including a 2000MW coal plant, a uranium processing plant, and an incinerator. As the new government chips away at the foundations of civil society, however, it is unclear how much longer officials will tolerate such demonstrations.

As China sorts out its path forward, the rest of the world will largely be a bystander — but not one without significant stakes in the outcome. There is excitement at the prospect that the new leadership recognizes the importance of the environment. This recognition could translate into greater opportunities for multinationals engaged in environmental protection work, new partnerships for international NGOs, and new commitments to global environmental challenges, like climate change.

But at a more profound level, China’s leaders appear to be betting that their approach to environmental governance — top-down, command, and control — can work. They’re also betting that developing the fundamentals of good environmental governance — transparency, rule of law, and official accountability — pose too great a risk. That has been the bet for more than 60 years. It is hard to believe that China’s leaders think that where they are now on this issue is where they really want to be.

China’s Next Great Transition
An HBR Insight Center

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