Chinese environmental activists and Tibetan residents remove rubbish from Namtso Lake in Tibet, known as the lake of the heaven (Reuters).
This week, Chinese media reported an "unprecedented" spate of coal mine accidents that took place over the past five days. In and of itself, the six accidents are not surprising—nor, likely, is the scale unprecedented. But the wide publicity the tragedies received within the country, alongside today's conviction of two mining bosses, is a sign of something new. China's increasing interest in social harmony and public safety is helping to drive a new openness on all sorts of controversies, from corruption to capital punishment to mining disasters. But by far the biggest target of the country's new introspection is the use of coal itself—along with the many other factors that pollute the skies, rivers, land and, of course, people.
As smoggy as China's future may look, it's important to remember that the country is in the throes of furious (and carefully-controlled) change--and in the process, the government's changing its approach to all sorts of problems (such as the environment) that might threaten its hold on things. What remains to be seen is how well the country can turn action to idea, and how much its eco-reform will continue to foster a civil society and vice-versa. In a country where "revolution" is a bad word, the question is, just how revolutionary can its new "green revolution" be?These days--be them bright blue and clear or yellow and sooty--the country either looks like the world's most ambitious sustainable developer or history's biggest environmental disaster zone. Between Beijing's throat-busting pollution levels, an oil spill in the southwest and continuing water alarms, the New York Times' contradictory ride up the Yellow River, and a rise in pollution during 2006, things have looked especially bleak lately.
And yet China is and has long been an ecological civilization. By virtue of its traditional agrarian economy, China remains, in per capita terms, a country of relatively low consumption and low waste. But the wave of modernization and globalization is changing all of that, fast. Thanks to the country's economic opening up, some of China's software—the policy—has been forced to upgrade. Millions are moving to the cities, thousands of new cars hit the streets everyday, and a new coal plant is erected every week. But the software is still being installed: the daily life of a middle-class Chinese is still part accidental treehugger (counting pennies on electricity bills, reusing at home, bicycling to work), part eco-oblivious creature, aspiring to a western lifestyle that's not so friendly to the planet.
Indeed, China's development, witnessed by its hybrid capitalist-socialist structure, is still very much in process, which makes this just the right time to ensure that the country doesn't wither under so much smog.
On paper, 2006 may be the year that the government tried to do just that. Beijing made energy efficiency and sustainability an integral part of its latest Five-Year Plan, with ambitious guidelines to cut nationwide energy consumption by 20% in 2010. It's also mandated an audit of 100 of the country's most energy-intensive industrial facilities, the construction of a landmark "eco-city," the installation of up to 4 million energy-efficient light bulbs, and an increased focus on clean coal, combined heat and power, and alternative fuel and renewable energy technologies. It's announced it will spend $175 billion on environmental cleanup. A recent rough estimate of "green GDP" has become a global example of connecting greenbacks and green policies. To be sure, green-washing abounds, and it's still unclear how capable China will be of turning words to action. But the will is there, and policy change has at least begun.
Still, as Alex Steffin points out so well in a recent post, China can't go very far on sustainability until its hardware is upgraded. That doesn't just mean new florescent lightbulbs on Tian'an'men Square, but an exorcism of the demons that linger there: a stricter rule of law, better protections of human rights, more local oversight, and less censorship. And (ahem) a freer, transparent political system.
It needs those changes to ensure that NGOs can flourish, that environmental laws can actually matter, that citizens can voice their ecological concerns and that honest dialogue can happen both within and with China. As John Ashton, the UK's special representative for climate change, said recently at the launch of the outstanding website chinadialogue.net,
Breaking down the barriers between different voices inside and outside China is a crucial job: there are barriers between people outside China who need to understand what is going on there and need to have a dialogue about the reciprocal consequences of the decisions that are being taken, and those inside China who are taking them. Breaking those barriers is as important as is breaking down the barriers within China.
Yet, though a "green glasnost" may not seem possible until reforms come to pass, developments of late indicate that we are already witnessing the start of a period of openness, a kind of green-colored transparency.
Instead of waiting for serious hardware upgrades, perhaps this new environmental openness--tweaks to the policies and the thinking behind them—can be the key to more serious social and political change.
A report by the Jamestown Foundation issued last week details the ways in which green NGOs in China have proved that organized activism can work in a country notorious for suppressing people power. Indeed, that activism, bolstered by the internet and able to squeeze through the many holes in China's bureaucracy, is even seeing increased support from the state. One reason might be that protests aren't just the province of NGOs, but also of peasants and grassroots activists, who have taken to protesting the government over environmental damage, among other issues. Last year, the Public Security Bureau said the number of "mass incidents"—including protests, riots and mass petitions—had risen by 28% in 2004 to 74,000; only 10,000 such cases had been reported a decade before (South China Morning Post, February 8).
It's that sort of unrest—and Hu Jintao's recent emphasis on a "harmonious society"—that has warmed Beijing's relationship with green NGOs; and it's the government's increasing accommodation of and collaboration with these groups that's encouraging more people to start their own initiatives. The results of their work are so far outstanding: a number of laws mandating environmental reviews on major development projects, public hearings over ecological impact, and ongoing collaborations over future regulations. The attention Beijing's already getting from the 2008 Olympics is only encouraging the country's green leanings. No matter how much of this is a result of greenwashing, and while NGO work is still largely restricted by the government, it's clear that green NGOs are becoming increasingly prominent and important in China (Time recently gave accolades to two of the movement's leaders).
Just as remarkable as the fact of green NGOs' rise is that the dialogue between activists and local and national officials over dam construction has increasingly hinged on China's most sensitive issue: human rights. Protests over dam building have made it clear to the government just how closely tied are environment protection and the well-being of its rural population. And concerns over both economic and public health have given rise to court-based complaints. In Beijing, the NRDC has been consulting one of China's landmark NGOs, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, on its efforts to improve green legal mechanisms. Together they've helped advise China's EPA on policy reforms. It's exciting to think of how China's high-profile dialogue over basic land rights endangered by dam construction (or the land grabs of corrupt officials) might turn next to the public health rights endangered by pollution. And it's even more thrilling to imagine government leaders who recognize the political, social and economic instability at stake, helping to facilitate that dialogue.
Of course, the world's most important local environmental movement requires more openness. But it's helping to drive that openness too. How sustainable.