In February 2017 local officials in Daqing, Heilongjiang Province, struggled to disperse protests against the construction of an aluminium plant in the city. Dismissing promises that it would increase employment in the city, residents were angry at the prospect of another polluting industrial project in their backyards. Similar demonstrations were seen against planned industrial development in June 2016 in Hubei Province, while thousands took to the streets in October 2016 in the city of Xi’an against a new waste incineration plant. Smaller protests over similar facilities were also reported in Xiantao City in Hubei and Zhaoqing City in Guangxi. Such protests are not necessarily the norm - the Chinese Communist Party has become adept at intercepting and dispersing localised demonstrations before they gather steam - but they are increasingly common. Protests against the prospect of ever higher pollution levels are increasingly frequent, and at times succeed in preventing construction plans from going ahead. They are also more likely than ever to take place in cities, where it is harder for the state to control publicity, than ever before.
Exact figures on such ‘mass incidents’, as the state prefers to term them, are hard to verify, but what is clear is that they represent mounting public outrage over the environmental degradation that has been allowed to run rampant in China. Air pollution in China is estimated to cause 1.2 million premature deaths each year. Estimates of the annual cost to national GDP range from 3.5%, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, to as high as 10% . In 2014 over 25% of China’s key rivers were rated unfit for human contact, with corruption, poor implementation of existing regulations, and insufficient monitoring capacity making it difficult to assess, let alone improve, the country’s environmental outlook. As the full environmental cost of China’s two decades of rapid economic growth has come into sharp focus, so has the threat it poses to the Party’s legitimacy, both in terms of its direct impact on public opinion and its potential to hinder future growth.
Smog shrouds the historic Forbidden City in Beijing. The cost of environmental degradation in China, both in human and economic terms, is staggering, by Brian Jeffery Beggerly
Against this backdrop of mounting public outrage over environmental degradation, the Chinese Communist Party is changing course. In a matter of years China has gone from environmental pariah to a global leader in action against pollution and climate change. In 2015 the Party declared its commitment to building an ‘Ecological Civilisation’, in which economic development would be achieved in harmony with the natural environment, as opposed to at its expense. New legislation on water management, which will be transformative if implemented effectively, came into effect the previous year, and Chinese commitment to the Paris Agreement has remained strong in the face of disappearing US commitment.
Strong statements of intent have, surprisingly for many, been backed by an impressive level of government action. Central government environmental inspections in 2016 led to disciplinary action against 3,000 local officials and an unprecedented 300 arrests. Some provincial governments have introduced environmental stewardship as a performance indicator for officials, a long overdue step away from what has been excessive focus on GDP growth at any cost. National coal consumption may well have peaked, and Beijing has made dramatic moves to phase out coal in the next few years. The West’s enthusiasm for shale gas stands in stark contrast to Chinese plans to invest £292 billion in renewable energy by 2020. The previously mainstream idea that China would be unwilling to pursue costly environmental action without similar moves from the West is in tatters - such action is now clearly in the domain of the CCP’s self preservation.
On paper, public participation is a part of the Ecological Civilisation, with approved NGOs encouraged to report companies that flout regulations to the Environmental and Resources Tribunal on the Supreme People’s Court. Revisions to environmental protection law in 2015 saw moves towards favouring increased public participation. However, an increase in public protest is unlikely to be part of the plan. Activists may have 700 state-approved environmental NGOs to choose from, but faith in the government to clean up a mess that happened on its own watch will be difficult to achieve. Last December, planned demonstrations against air pollution in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, were faced with roadblocks in the streets and censorship on social media. The municipal government did, however, release a list of polluting sites in the city in an attempt to placate public anger.
Facemasks placed on public artwork by protesters in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to bring attention to air pollution in the city
China may have been here before - seeing the threat to Party legitimacy posed by growing resentment of corruption, Xi Jinping launched a drastic anti-corruption drive that has managed to salvage a measure of public support, while also removing political opponents. By declaring war on environmental degradation, the central state may be able to pull off a similar feat with pollution, diverting public discontent through state channels and directing it at local government, distracting from central and structural issues, and consolidating state power in the process. Greater efforts to implement environmental legislation should be praised, but a close watch should be kept on which officials actually end up in front of Chinese courts, with their close ties to the Party and 99% conviction rate. Just as Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive has reinforced his hold over the Party, the profile of successful environmental prosecutions may be able to show us the extent to which the ‘Ecological Civilisation’ is being appropriated to shore up Party power.
The result is a human rights dilemma - whatever its motivations, the Chinese state has become one of the world’s most active players in protecting our collective right to a world free from the most severe consequences of climate change. Tackling pollution in a country that is home to a fifth of the world’s population would also be an impressive victory for human welfare. However, China’s green credentials should not distract from the increasingly authoritarian Party government. China’s economic clout has already decreased Western governments’ willingness to address its human rights issues, with British foreign policy shifting from meeting with the Dalai Lama to pints with President Xi. Environmentalists will welcome China’s commitment to solving pollution and climate change, but the right to demand clean air cannot be separated from the right to breath it.