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Is China’s Environmental Dilemma Becoming an Issue of Legitimacy?

In 2015 the world witnessed what seemed the beginning of growing public dissent towards the effects that an almost three decade long surge for economic growth had on the environment. The protests consisted of Chinese of mixed class backgrounds who found common ground in their concern for a cleaner environment and their growing discontent with the authorities. The physical impact the environment has on the health and everyday life of the Chinese population, as well as the difficulty of implementing reforms which are not always compatible with the government’s economic goals, caused the media to frame the issue as the one problem that could rock the foundation of the Chinese government, and possibly render it illegitimate.

In 2016 the soaring environmental protests of 2015 seem to have decreased and there are a few possible reasons. One of them is the government’s integration of environmental issues into the five year plan. China has also recently taken a new stance on climate change in terms of the Paris-agreement. Of course, the country’s infamous repression of public dissent might be enough discouragement for protesting. But the question remains: is the leadership’s goal for a greener society compatible with targets like economic growth, and what would implementing these rules mean in terms of political legitimacy.

In 2013 a documentary called “Under the Dome” was released and reached hundreds of millions of views within days. The film, made by journalist Chai Jing, highlighted how China’s air pollution was affecting the health of the Chinese population. This in turn sparked public concern for the environment that some thought was comparable to the impact “Silent Spring” had on American politics in the 1960s. The impact of the documentary was evident as in December the same year the Chinese government declared a war on pollution.

The Chinese government has in the last two years made increasing progress regarding the environment. For instance, the capital has had a reduction of coal-fueled power plants (the biggest air polluter of Chinese heavy industry) and an expansion of the subway system as a way of curbing the city’s increased use of cars. Many were however surprised when in November 2016 Beijing’s smog levels surpassed that of November 2015. An investigation later showed that the high smog levels of Beijing were partly the result of smog coming in from the surrounding Hebei province, where the local government relies on steel and heavy-industry for tax revenues, jobs and social stability.

This in turn raised questions of implementation. By using emergency-smoke-alert-systems, the central government gave local governments the authority to limit traffic, pause construction activities and force firms to cut production. This has however been difficult to implement in some provinces and cities where a reduction in production could result in unemployment and in turn threaten social stability. In the spring of 2016 this was the case in the northern province Heilongjiang where a coal-plant in Hegang, a city economically dependent on the coal-industry, experienced overcapacity as a result of the falling demand for coal. As a consequence factory workers took to the streets protesting unpaid salaries.

Another way of curbing the pollution has been by encouraging the public to make sure factories do not exceed the pollution limit. The environmental protection agency has portrayed the enforcement of environmental laws as an issue of transparency, since they sometimes meet resistance from teamed-up local governments and representatives of the industrial sector. These two different ways of implementation can be seen as examples of top-down and bottom-up solutions. Yet, what they both have in common is that they effectively steer focus away from the central government and onto the local or provincial levels. So how can we critically understand the central government’s role in carrying out environmental reforms?

Smog over Beijing. Source: fl85, Flickr.
Smog over Beijing. Source: fl85, Flickr.

The high levels of smog that have haunted Beijing throughout October and November this year were not only the result of failed implementation, but also the central government’s recent efforts to mitigate the economic downturn. Earlier this year the government launched an economic stimulus package that resulted in escalating infrastructure and property investment. The increased need for heavy-industry made the production of steel go up and resulted in higher levels of air pollution. The government has however expressed the need for restructuring the economy so that a stimulus package does not lead to increased production of heavy industry. All this leaves us with an understanding of the difficulties of implementing change, when the major issue is not only the economy or the environment but one of legitimacy and maintaining control.

China’s image as the biggest polluter radically changed when they strongly declared their commitment to the future Paris agreement. The country’s attitude towards climate change is indeed important, not only in terms of being a large scale polluter but also as taking on a leading role for other developing economies. But balancing economic growth and environmental reforms is a challenge to any state, and perhaps it is important the international community recognize the dilemma facing China’s leadership.

Fanny Hernmarck

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