Are environmental concerns changing the face of Chinese politics?

Alexander Perlier

October, 2017

Smog in Shanghai, China

Smog in Shanghai, China


China is witnessing an environmental catastrophe uncoiling before its eyes. Its shift from a communist economy to a hybrid model of “state capitalism” in 1978 resulted in mass industrialization, which proved detrimental to the environment.

Many viewed industrialization as yet another victory for the free market economy since the transition saw over 400 million Chinese citizens rise above the poverty line between 1981 and 2001. Capitalism appeared to succeed where Mao’s Great Leap Forward has failed terribly. From 1958 to 1962, at least 45 million people were starved or worked to death in accordance to Mao’s delusional plan to compete with the Western world.

Conversely, Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 economic reform appeared to be a lifeline for the Chinese people. Although not entirely economically liberal in the Western sense, Deng freed China’s private sector by allowing entrepreneurs to create businesses, as well as opened the country to foreign investment and decollectivized the central planning economy. Accordingly, this marked the emergence of the Chinese middle class.

Unfortunately, the effects of industrialization are finding themselves destructive to the environment. Today, 70% of China’s lakes and rivers are significantly polluted, rendering them unhealthy for irrigation. In addition, 90% of China’s grasslands have degraded and almost 40% of Chinese land suffers from soil erosion.

Air pollution has gotten so harmful in cities along the South-Eastern coast that the issue has been dubbed “airpocalypse” by some observers in Beijing. The extreme levels of pollution have affected 24 metropoles, putting over 460 million citizens at risk. On its worst days, living in Beijing is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes. The alarmingly high level of smog in China forced the government to declare a “war on pollution” in 2004.

Moreover, these detrimental effects do not affect China alone.

The country possesses upstream power by geographically being positioned north of the Mekong River – a crucial source of water for many Greater Mekong Sub-regions, including Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and India.

Research has uncovered evidence that the water quality degradation has harmed fresh water species and ecosystems living in and around the Mekong south of China. This is a cause for great concern to neighboring countries since a large percentage of their respective populations depend on a healthy environment to prosper.

For instance, Cambodia’s fishery sector accounts for 8.8% to 10.3% of the country’s GDP and 1.5 million people live exclusively off fishing in Vietnam.

There is a case to be made that the environmental concerns are indeed changing Chinese politics.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actually created a Ministry for Environmental Protection in March 2008. This quite literally changed politics in China by having the National People’s Congress address the growing environmental concerns.

In addition, the CCP included environmental priorities in their 5-year plan from 2011-2015. The emphasis put on green initiatives was surprising because it undermined the resource-intensive economic model that China has profited from in the past 30 years.

Environmental protection has indeed been pushed to the forefront of political consciousness as evidenced by the government plan to invest 5 trillion yuan (750 million USD) into new eco-friendly energy by 2020. Thus, it is fair to assess that environmental concerns have had a significant impact on Chinese politics. But to what extent has it actually changed politics?

The CCP remains as it always has been. The creation of the Ministry for Environmental Protection further supports the party’s modus operandi: address the people’s concerns and appease dissidence, whilst maintaining the intensively centralized authority. In that regard, it is business as usual for Chinese politics.

Nonetheless, China is also experiencing environmental activism from below, offering a new platform for politics to the people. Public engagement has become prevalent through the creation of several NGOs, which emphasizes the desire for reforms.

Similarly to Falun Gong prior to it being banned, political consciousness is being stirred at the individual level. Environmental concern is uniting the Chinese public and offering them a common cause to rally – exactly how Falun Gong had two decades ago.

The movement, although ostensibly spiritual in nature, offered a platform for commoners to convey and demonstrate dissent in the streets of cities. Fearing its massive and unannounced gatherings, its increasing membership, and its anti-government propaganda, the CCP crack downed on the practice in 1999. 2,000 people died from government abuse as a result.

In 2011, 10,000 to 70,000 people reportedly took to the street of the industrialized port of Dalian to protest for the relocation of a chemical plant on the coast of the city. Other instances of equally large protests most certainly pose the same threat to the government as Falun Gong: a strong and united resistance.

There does seem to be a movement of civil society from below stirring in China. This is a cause for interest because environmental activism may challenge China’s notorious repressive nature. However, the party’s monopoly over media outlets and its well-established censorship apparatus has weakened the extent to which NGOs can successfully alter the power dynamics in China.

Despite this, one assessment is evident: environmental concerns have successfully rattled the shackles of Chinese civil society.