Green China and young China (part two)

Environmental protection needs to pay attention to issues of culture and ethics, says Pan Yue. In the concluding part of his two-part essay, Pan calls on youth to step forward and embrace idealism once again.

Why is environmental protection considered a cultural issue? One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between man and nature. Different philosophies all emphasise the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of man and nature becoming one, the Daoist view of the Dao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society. It is a shame that two historical events almost wiped out these traditional ways of thinking. The first was the May Fourth Movement, during which Confucian ideology was viciously attacked; the movement had a certain degree of historical rationality, but it can be criticised for going too far. The second was the Cultural Revolution, during which Confucianism was held up as the “opposite” of Marxism and anything representing traditional culture was smashed.

We blamed Confucian culture for our hundred years of humiliation at the hands of Western powers, and we saw it as an obstacle to China’s modernisation. However, Chinese society now finds itself in a situation where traditional morals are in danger of being lost. People see the world purely in the pragmatic terms of their own interest. The whole process of production and human life has been simplified down to the goals of earning money and consuming. The core value of harmony between man and nature has been utterly abandoned. However, when the same things we abandoned were picked up and used by others, miracles have occurred. The success of the Asia’s “Four Little Dragons” has shown that Confucianism is a tool exclusively owned by the east, and can be a corrective to the flaws of capitalism. Sinology is still a subject worth studying: the young should study it for the sake of their ancestors, but even more for the sake of the future. Chinese culture can be a powerful weapon to deal with the challenges of the future. The complicated changes that will occur in the world cannot be confronted with computers alone.


The environment is also an ideological issue, or at least an issue that relates to one’s view of the world. For various historical reasons, Marxism, which is so full of vitality, has been twisted and made dogmatic. After the reforms, many people focused on the parts of Marxism that discuss developing the forces of production, and ignored the theories that concern the integrated development of humanity. This subjective understanding has meant that when we criticise capitalism, we only criticise the contradictions in the forces of production and the relationships of production. We rarely criticise the contradiction between excessive production and consumption on the one hand, and environmental resources on the other. The environment is a problem for all industrial societies, and capitalism and socialism both need to find solutions. This is an issue that transcends ideology and questions of “left and right”.

Western Marxists came up with a new ideology: “eco-socialism”. With this they hoped to revise and rescue traditional social democracy. Scientific socialism focuses on changing unequal relationships of production, where eco-socialism suggests that we should also try to adjust the aims of production. Instead of aiming for the highest possible levels of production and consumption, we should be aiming to improve quality of life and levels of happiness. Instead of being merely a way of earning money, labour should be a creative activity. In contrast to economism, eco-socialism demands that we value natural resources and put an end to bureaucratic waste. In contrast to extreme environmentalism, eco-socialism does not seek to negate industrial civilization, and does not advocate abstinence. Eco-socialism aims to create a new model of development, which can meet people’s needs while also reducing waste. Only through this can humans resist the pursuit of insatiable desire and overcome the contradictions of industrial civilisation. Eco-socialism could have much to contribute to China’s sustainable development and the ideas of the “scientific concept of development” and “harmonious society” currently promoted by the central government.

A Chinese saying goes: “a sparrow may be small, but it has all five organs.” Similarly, the field of environmental protection is a microcosm of the issues facing China today. Attempts to solve these problems would be useful experiments for transforming China in a wider sense. For example, coming up with an answer to the problem of green production would also help to solve the problem of core competitiveness. Solving the problem of environmental compensation would provide experience for the solution of societal injustices. Establishing a system for democratic environmental decision-making would open paths for reform of the whole system of government. Solving problems of environmental culture could provide a vibrant new ideological system suited to the rise of a green China. It is for these reasons that I say that environmental protection is not a specialised, isolated issue, but an issue that concerns economy, society, politics and culture. It is, in short, a “global complex”. Only by placing the issue in an elevated position can we gain a wide enough visual field to truly understand the importance of environmental protection in today’s China. Only in this way can we understand the need to build a green China and how to go about its construction. One must learn how to participate in public life through a wide variety of channels.

Young China

What about the youth of China? When I was young, my aunts and uncles would always say to me: “The problems that our generation could not solve will be passed on to you. You have to do us proud and come up with solutions”. At the time I was annoyed. “All the debts you accumulated will be passed on to us,” I would say. “And if we cannot pay them off, we will just pass them down to the next generation. If no one takes the initiative and makes sacrifices, lots of problems will never be solved.” Now I am middle-aged myself, I can understand more what they were saying. Take the story of the early Chinese reformers. In “Towards the Republic”, after the allied foreign forces have entered Beijing, Liang Qichao asks Li Hongzhang to come to the north. Li says: “One generation can only do the work of one generation.” In many cases, it is not that the older generation does not want to solve the problem, but that they are stopped from doing so by historical conditions. This is the case with the environment. Our generation may still comfort itself by saying: “China is so big, it will take at least 10 years to work everything out,” but the young generation will not have the same luxury. In 15 years, China’s GDP will have increased fourfold. Pollution will have increased by four to six times. China’s environment will not be able to take this pressure, so what is going to happen to you, the young people? The problem of the environment may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility to solve it. If you fail, you will pay the price. If you succeed, the credit will be all yours. This is your destiny.

Every generation has its own destiny, which becomes the framework for its own successes. My parents’ generation liberated China from imperialism. My generation started the process of China’s opening up and transition to modernity. And what is the younger generation’s duty? It is to find a path to sustainable development suited to China. In doing this, you will need a measure of idealism.

What do I mean by idealism? I mean the spirit of trying to achieve things that seem impossible. Looking at history, we see that every generation of young people has had its own ideals. Whether you agree with these or not, at least they had them. In the early nineteenth century, the young people who took part in the May Fourth Movement were fighting for an ideology. Those who went to in the 1930s were fighting for independence. Those who volunteered to go far into the countryside in the 1950s and 60s did it to make China richer and stronger. Those who became Red Guards in the 1970s did so to keep the revolution alive. Those who went abroad to study in the 1980s and 90s went to learn from European and American ideas of how to build a strong country.

I do not really understand the younger generation. I would like to talk to you young people as I would to a friend, but to be honest, it is hard. I don’t communicate very well with my son. He worships individual freedom. He has seen a lot and understands many things, but he still does not understand the Chinese nation. We often argue and don’t see each other very often, which makes me sad. I have put together a list of criticisms of your generation. I don’t know if you will really listen to them or not, but here they are: your generation has grown up in a rich and varied environment, but has no roots or foundation. You have an excessive passion for the future, yet almost no interest in history. You have hardly any of the constraints of tradition, and you lack any real beliefs. To put it simply, idealism is rare in your generation. Pragmatism and individualism have won out. This is not really a question of individual problems, but of a wider social climate.

In fact, pragmatism and individualism are not necessarily bad, but excessive pragamatism can lead to collective short-sightedness, and individualism that is not in tune with the current era can not create a social climate. You do not have to blindly listen to what our generation says, but you must have your own beliefs. These beliefs must be intimately related to the era in which we live. This is the era of the rise of the Chinese people. For yes, we are rising.

China has risen to the point where it is the number one producer of manufactured goods in the world, the second largest destination for foreign direct investment, and the third biggest trading nation. But our rise is based largely on the consumption of natural resources, capital investment and cheap labour. The contradiction between the population on one side, and resources and the environment on the other, is a time bomb with the power to stop our rise. Constraints do not only come from within, but also from the international community. Globalisation means that the environment and human rights are two huge factors influencing international politics and trade. The process of globalisation, controlled and dominated by Europe and the US, is unfair in the extreme. At the same time as they accuse us of polluting the environment, they transfer their polluting industries to China and make clean technology unavailable to us. They have access to more resources than us, but set up green barriers that prevent us from taking part in international trade. The Chinese people must fight back. We must represent all developing countries in fighting for justice from the developed countries, and get them to play by their own rules. We need to learn from the west’s advanced systems, technologies and ways of thinking, and tighten our belts and pursue green development. We need to unite with our regional neighbours, encourage cooperation and solve environmental disputes. We need to join with eco-socialists and left-wing organisations from developed countries to put pressure on multinational corporations and limit the transfer of polluting industries to China. China can do a lot internationally for environmental protection, and you can also do a lot at home. Every day you talk about patriotism and the “spirit of the nation.” Well, you can express your patriotism in environmental work. On another level, any rise in the environmental awareness of the Chinese people is also a rise in their level of ethical sophistication.

There is much work to do. This is a moment full of both challenges and opportunities. My generation is old and cannot keep up any more. Our power to change things is waning, which only means that our hopes for your generation are all the greater. Only the young really make history. When Liang Qichao led the Hundred Days Reform, he was only 22. Zhou Enlai was 26 when he became head of the politics department at the Whampoa Military Academy. Hu Shi was 27 when he became a professor at Peking University and launched the New Culture Movement. Mao Zedong was 28 when he started the uprising of railway workers in Hunan. In the field of the environment, Denis Hayes was only 25 when he led the 1970 Earth Day demonstrations, in which 20 million Americans took part. Therefore, I encourage your passion and creativity, and unconditionally support your hard work. Although we are older than you, age is a state of mind, not a number. Our hearts are still young and we will fight with you.

Liang Qichao once wrote an essay called “The Young China”. Allow me to quote it here: “Today’s responsibility lies with the youth. If the youth are wise, the country will be wise. If the youth are wealthy, the country will be wealthy. If the youth are strong, the country will be strong. If the youth are independent, the country will be independent. If the youth are free, the country will be free. If the youth progress, the country will progress. If the youth are better than Europeans, China will be better than Europe. If the youth are more heroic than the rest of the world, China will be more heroic than the rest of the world.” Liang wrote those words at China’s darkest, most uncertain hour, when the great powers mocked China for being an old empire in decline. However, Liang still believed that if the youth of China could join together in struggle, this decaying country could be transformed into a new, young country. Today, we again find ourselves in an era which will decide China’s destiny. After 50 years of backwardness, can China rise again? What form will this rise take? The answers to these questions are in your hands. Only your generation can complete the task of building a sustainable, fair, democratic, harmonious and socialist green China. I believe that green China will also be a young China – the China which Liang Qichao described, with a long history and a glorious future.

Pan Yue is deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). Part of a new generation of outspoken Chinese senior officials, Pan has given rise to a tide of environmental debate, attracting enormous attention and controversy.

Homepage photo by Bruce Lee

Article photo by Hatter 10_6