To Get Rich (Smartly) Is Glorious: 'Conservation' at China's 17th Communist Party Congress


(We will) promote a conservation culture by basically forming an energy- and resource-efficient and environmentally-friendly structure of industries, pattern of growth and mode of consumption... Awareness of conservation will be firmly established in the whole of society.

It's hard to imagine such sweeping, courageous words from the president of any other country but China. On Monday, President Hu Jintao emphasized conservation during the start of the 17th CPC National Congress, the gargantuan agenda-setting political event China holds every five years. But this treehugger talk wasn't a matter of courage so much as one of necessity.

The recognition that the country's breakneck growth has devastated the environment (amongst other problems) is not new for the party central. But at a time of unprecedented growth (GDP grew at 11.5 percent in the last half), a steady stream of environmental accidents (842 this year by official count), and increasing access to the internet and mobile phones for the billions affected by those accidents, the seemingly all-powerful Communist Party is nervous. The leaders now know that the wait-and-see attitude (coupled with decidedly un-socialist incentives for rapid development) simply won't allow the country to continue its rise: that is, the plight of nature and the protests of people won't allow it to. It recognizes too that there's money to be made by cleaning up the environment.

It even understands that the country's other pressing challenges (health care, rural education, the wealth gap) are directly or indirectly tied up with the environment. That means that fixing one -- by improving the accountability and oversight of local governments, by incentivizing reform, by tightening policies and building a reliable legal system -- can help to fix the others too.

No wonder "(socialist) democracy" was such a big word in Hu's speech, in the sense of increasing government accountability, improving transparency and allowing for more public input. (That despite the sterner-than-usual crackdown on activists in the weeks prior to the Party meeting, or the continuing detention of environmental warriors like Wu Lihong by face-conscious local governments.)

Speaking of "scientific development," his now trademark slogan, Hu emphasized even faster economic growth -- though not at the cost of the environment:

We must adopt an enlightened approach to development that results in expanded production, a better life and sound ecological and environmental conditions... We need to correctly handle the major relationships between urban and rural development, economic and social development, and man and nature.

"...We must give prominence to building a resource-conserving, environment-friendly society in our strategy for industrialization and modernization and get every organization and family to act accordingly."

"...We will quadruple per capita GDP of the year 2000 by 2020 through optimizing the economic structure and improving economic returns while reducing consumption of resources and protecting the environment.

How China will reconcile those two (higher GDP plus higher consumption with conservation and clean-up) is a big question. In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the rising middle upper class shows little signs of low-impact aspirations: big cars, big homes and the conspicuous consumption of malls brimming with luxury goods are signs of affluence, the prizes for China three decades after Deng Xiaoping told everyone to get rich. Meanwhile, the biggest urban migration in history is happening in China, as millions move out of the poor central and western regions into China's booming coastal regions. They've got big dreams of consumption too.

If the Party is serious about extolling a low consumption society, it must start with stronger laws and policies. From preventing government waste, corruption and negligence, to boosting environmental education and improving citizen participation, to fostering international ties to institutions and governments that can help, China knows it must consider more than just environmental problems if it really wants to fix them. More than just the environment is at stake.

Hu's emphasis on conservation is a breath of fresh air, but it isn't the first time Party leaders have paid lip service to a low-impact lifestyle as a virtue. In 1999, Wen Jiabao, then vice premier, said "the 21st century will be a century of conservation culture."

If it will be, every country will need to play a big role, especially those that lead the world in consumption. But as China's population and economy continues to rise, it's increasingly clear that it will need to play the biggest role in turning this century into one of conservation.

And if that will happen, it's increasingly clear too that leaders like Hu will need to make sure that their hard work (or at least hard words) can actually have an impact, and not just go to waste.

via China Daily

Photo: Shanghai Daily

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