Interpreting ecological civilisation (part one)

A new Party document on "ecological civilisation" reveals new government strategies for greening China, with potentially wide-ranging implications, writes Sam Geall
<p>(Image by Markus Spiering) </p>

(Image by Markus Spiering) 

Is China heading for ecological oblivion, or planting the seeds of a global green transformation? Questions asked more than ever in the run-up to crucial UN climate talks in Paris in December. On the one hand, doomsayers cite China’s persistent air, water and soil pollution; on the other, optimists point to a decline in coal consumption and the accelerating deployment of clean energy.

About this series

This is the first of a special three-part series on ecological civilisation. Read parts 2 and 3 here:

Part 2: Policy objectives and targets

Part 3: Standards, mechanisms and assessment procedures

Fewer discuss how the Party and elite government institutions see their future or what the core concept of “ecological civilisation” – the Party’s long-term vision of a sustainable China – means. It matters, as it turns out.

“Building an ecological civilisation”, the environmental slogan the Chinese government has promoted over the past few years, might sound peculiar or vague to non-Chinese ears. But it is central to one of the highest-level, and so far largely unreported, state policy documents published this year, a document that makes ambitious pledges that could be decisive for China’s environmental future.

This is the unpromisingly titled Central Document Number 12, “Opinions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council on Further Promoting the Development of Ecological Civilisation”.

Its release on April 25 has been described by China’s top economic planner as a “breakthrough”.

Despite concern about China’s environmental deterioration at the highest levels of state, there have been chronic problems with enforcement of laws and regulations designed to halt a further slide into environmental crisis.

At local levels of government, contradictory laws, collusion between officials and polluters, misaligned political evaluation metrics for officials and restricted scope for citizen oversight have thwarted environmental initiatives. At the elite level, vested interests, inter-agency rivalries and an overriding focus on high growth rates have worked against green policies.

The significance of this new, 12,000-character text is not that it restates high-level intentions to clean up China’s economic model (although it does that, too); its importance is that it systematically addresses the obstacles to effective policy by setting out standards, mechanisms and assessments that aim to improve implementation and realise the ambition it proclaims. 

These mechanisms include significant new ways to punish and reward officials, by abandoning “economic growth as the only criterion in government performance assessment” and establishing a “lifelong accountability system”. This would ensure for the first time that environmental violations will affect an official’s chances of promotion and environmental black marks will stay on the work record for the rest of his or her career. The text also promotes the role of public participation, including through the participation of NGOs in environmental governance, and greater environmental transparency, an encouraging sign in light of low public trust caused by a culture of secrecy around planning decisions and steadily tightening controls over civil society.

Evolution of a slogan

China’s top officials have long harboured green ambitions. Sustainable development became a key phrase in government literature during the 1990s. Xiaokang, the society of modest means, became a signature theme of Jiang Zemin’s presidency the following decade. In 2007, “ecological civilisation” made its debut appearance at the Chinese Communist Party’s 17th Congress – the Party’s highest body, which meets about every five years.

Environmentalist Ma Jun wrote that year on chinadialogue that the idea represented “the state of Chinese thinking on the future of global civilisation in the light of the world’s shared environmental challenges”.

President Xi Jinping has promoted the slogan over the past two years and Chinese scholars have debated its meaning. For some, influenced by ecological Marxist ideas (nine books and more than 600 articles have purportedly been published in China about ecological Marxism in recent years) ecological civilisation challenges the Party to take “ecological responsibility,” while at the same time challenging capitalism itself, which could help “the Chinese people revalue their own traditional ecological wisdom”. The phrase is now in common use in conferences and reports in China, from UN urbanisation reports to provincial science conferences.

In this new text, ecological civilisation is set alongside the other, high-level political slogans that are emerging as the signature of Xi Jinping’s leadership, notably the “Chinese Dream”; and the Two Centenary Goals, the twin ambitions to double GDP and per capita income by 2020 on a 2010 baseline (in time for the centenary of the Communist Party of China) and to turn China into a “socialist modernised country” that is, according to another official pronouncement, “rich, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by mid-century (the centenary of the People’s Republic of China).

Much of the text is florid and mainly underscores the scale of the challenge, inviting its readers to “recognise the great value of lucid waters and green mountains” and to “speed up the creation of a new environment for modernisation featuring harmonious development between man and nature”.

But, importantly, the document will be interpreted and fleshed out by policymakers in future plans, pilots and policies across different sectors through the period of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) and perhaps beyond. The document has nine sections, summarised in more detail in the next two parts of this article. Briefly, these cover:

  • Overall guidelines, principles and targets to 2020;
  • Spatial and functional planning, integrating environmental policy into urbanisation rural development plans;
  • Policies supporting technological innovation for sustainability;
  • Use, efficiency and reuse of resources;
  • Ecosystem conservation;
  • Systems for ecological civilisation that include laws, standards, rights, regulations, markets and political evaluation;
  • Statistical monitoring for better policy implementation;
  • Awareness, education and participation, including from civil society; and,
  • Organisational leadership, including through international cooperation.

Taken together, the document sets out clearly the ambitions and implications of the idea of ecological civilisation, promising to integrate it into “all aspects and the entire process of economic, political, cultural and social development” – including China’s new industrialisation, urbanisation and agricultural modernisation plans.

Ecological civilisation, it argues, will mean a real transformation of the growth model, which would represent a final break with the “pollute first, clean up later” policies of the recent past. 

The new normal?

It won’t be easy. China faces enormous hurdles – not only technical, but also social and political – to transforming its development path.

Other signals, particularly the increasing restrictions faced by many environmental NGOs – the very groups that first challenged China’s resource-intensive, dirty model of growth and the local alliances of power and money that underpinned poor enforcement, are discouraging. However, the new regulations do underscore a shift in China’s “new normal” economy from investment in heavy industry towards low-carbon innovation.

Most significantly, the document acknowledges that the transition will demand reforms in governance. By introducing new ways to punish and reward officials, abandoning a bureaucratic culture of “economic growth as the only criterion” in government performance assessment and implementation of a lifelong accountability system that means environmental violations stay on a bureaucrat’s record, the text suggests ecological civilisation is no longer a vague rhetorical slogan.

Encouragingly, it includes expanded public participation and, specifically, environmental disclosure, moves that will help implementation and may contribute to greater public trust.

In the next two sections I will discuss China’s pathways to 2020 in key sectors, and the mechanisms the government has proposed in order to achieve them.  

This is the first article in a three-part series, please read the second installment here, and third installment here.